12/17/2012 11:49 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

A Religious Rescue from the Fiscal Cliff

Politicians are working themselves into a frenzy trying to prevent the much feared "fiscal cliff," a term used to describe a bundle of momentous federal tax increases and spending cuts that will happen later this year if government officials fail to act. But as the White House and Congress consider ending middle-class tax breaks like the payroll tax cut while also reducing valued programs like Medicare, they may be missing an opportunity to level the playing field among religious and philosophically-based organizations in a way that would also have a big impact on our nation's ability to return to fiscal solvency.

It's time to reconsider the huge tax benefits and government subsidies that are provided to government-recognized religions in this country. Beyond the obvious constitutional issues of the state giving preferential treatment to religious organizations, it just makes sense that in these times of budget tightening, the government can no longer afford to subsidize religious groups, their leaders, or their programs.

One of the big gifts from our government that religious groups and their leaders receive is something called the parsonage exemption. This exemption allows religious leaders who receive a home from their religious congregation to exclude almost all the costs of home ownership from their taxable income, at the expense of the American taxpayer. This exemption isn't open to leaders of secular and charitable organizations, just those who lead government-recognized churches. So that means that if you are one of over a hundred thousand priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams in America, you can get your house paid for through the taxes of Americans who may not even believe in a god. Pretty unfair, right?

This exemption is pretty broad, and allows religious leaders and their organizations to not pay taxes on things like the down payment on the leader's home, principal and interest payments on its mortgage, real estate taxes, liability insurance, and rental payments. These religious leaders can also exempt things such as utility and internet bills from their taxable income just because they work for a church, mosque, temple, or synagogue. But that's not all. Religious leaders are also exempt from paying personal property taxes, which is a huge steal for them considering how nice some of their homes are.

Of course, this is all in addition to the money that the federal government gives directly to religious charities through the faith-based initiatives that were started under George W. Bush and expanded under Barack Obama. In case you think these grants aren't a significant source of funding, just consider the fact that Catholic religious charities received $650 million under President Obama alone, and the others are so expansive, and cross so many governmental departments, that we don't even really know exactly how much money the government is losing to religious organizations and their leaders.

Groups like the Center for Inquiry estimate that the U.S. loses over $71 billion dollars a year in religious tax exemptions, and while others take issue with the accuracy of that estimation, the contention over this figure just goes to show how vital it is that we figure out how much money the government is giving away to religious groups. One way to fix this would be to finally require churches and religiously-affiliated organizations to file the annual tax returns that all other nonprofit organizations file with the IRS. These tax forms provide basic information to the government about an organization's finances, governance, and activities. Not only would this allow the IRS to get a better understanding of precisely how much money churches are getting from the government, it would also provide transparency for regular church members who are curious about how their donations are being used.

Humanists, atheists and other secular people aren't the only ones seeking accountability and a reduction in government welfare for faith groups. Some religious leaders recognize the value in getting detangled from government funds too. After all, they don't want their religious message tainted by a need to cozy-up to big brother in order to ensure the dollars keep going their way. And the folks in the pews have an even greater interest in seeing their churches reporting funds in a way that helps avoid embezzlement and other financial scandals.

At the end of the day, hard decisions are going to have to be made about how we can prevent our nation from descending too far in to debt, and that includes the possibility of cutting needed benefits and services. That's why it is so important that cuts happen elsewhere first, especially in places where changes can actually reinforce basic American values of fairness and freedom of thought. This isn't about punishing religious organizations; rather, it's about ensuring that they play by the same rules that everyone else does and don't benefit at the expense of others who may not even share their beliefs.