Why Don't Churches Pay Property Taxes?

 Places of worship in the United States received an official federal income tax exemption in 1894. Houses of worship include Churches, Temples, Mosques, Synagogues, and other buildings for worship. All 50 US states and the District of Columbia exempt churches from paying property tax. That means that every place of worship you see in Cook County is likely not paying any property tax.  In communities where churches dominate every corner and constitute most of the owned land in area, this means less revenue for nearby schools. Services such as police, parks, streets, schools, community colleges, public hospitals, elections, courts, jails, mosquito abatement, and sewage treatment also depend on this funding. As of 2016, places of worship in the United States were estimated to own $400-$600 billion in untaxed property. Cook County alone loses $527 million in annual property tax revenue due to nearly 8,000 places of worship being tax-exempt.

The issue of whether places of worship should pay taxes is being debated on several stages. Supporters of tax exemption say that churches deserve it because they provide crucial social services, and rely on the American history of 200 years of church tax exemptions.  In 2015, Pope Francis was quoted as telling churches that “If you don’t help the poor and needy, then pay taxes like a business.”  Many dissenters agree with Pope Francis.  Opponents argue that the government cannot afford what amounts to a subsidy worth billions of dollars every year, especially in counties like Cook, where individuals are heavily taxed.

In Illinois, churches that do not file annual paperwork with the Illinois Department of Revenue to keep their properties exempt from property taxes rare at risk of having “outstanding” taxes sold at a county tax sale.  At the tax sale, investors can purchase the delinquent taxes and churches have to redeem the taxes or risk having their building taken by the investor. The county has promoted several initiatives to help pastors and other stakeholders learn about and keep their exemption, thus keeping their building with the congregation.

What are your thoughts? Should places of worship pay property taxes in Cook County?