These are tough times. Paying firemen and police, fixing roads and water mains and bridges are becoming onerous burdens for municipalities, and its time we considered the free lunch we’ve been handing to churches and nonprofits. For instance:
When Target decided to build a big fancy new Super Target on Okeechobee Boulevard in Palm Beach County, Florida, it meant the smaller Target a couple miles south on Southern would close. When it did, the $6.8 million retail facility on a $5 million corner lot was granted to Christ Fellowship, and as if by magic, $12,485,118 of taxable real property was suddenly given an exemption for every dime.
What hasn’t been exempted is the fire protection. the police protection, the cost of maintaining the county offices that ensure that the parishioners in the church are safe should the Fire Department have to make a free call. The church isn’t exempt from any of those regulations, or from the benefits of the municipal services, its just exempt from having to pay for them.
In the early 1970s, as an undergrad journalism student at USC, I spent several days with the folks at Faith Center in Glendale, California. That was before the infamous W. Eugene Scott turned its license into a cause celebre. It was when the early megachurch, which already had an FM license, petitioned the FCC for a television license. Until then, television was too pricey and most churches too poor for a church to ever be a licensee. Pastor Tim Schoch, a good man with some then-innovate ideas, always thought the commission granted them the license in the belief that one church would never get a television station on the air.
But Faith Center did, and Rev. Schoch had a chance to try his marketing theories in the Los Angeles television market. “You take General Motors and these big car companies,” he told me, “and they’re not building auditoriums saying come down here and see my Chevy. They’re using television because they know that way they can get that Chevy into everybody’s living room.” So why, he argued, shouldn’t the Lord have what GM does? (Of course, that was when GM was a big profitable company)
Schoch died not too many years after getting his station on the air, inventing the “praise-a-thon,” and creating a monthly fundraising nut that required real talent to raise every month. He was a charismatic man who raised a fine son, but one who lacked his charisma and abilities and the money dried up. Enter Gene Scott and his horses, hot tub babes and FCC monkey band, but that’s another story.
I’ve told this story to show how churches have changed. They’ve changed in a way that they gives them the resources to pay taxes, and in a way that demands far more public support that creates a serious tax burden for the rest of us. Its time that non-profits and churches pay real property taxes just like the rest of us, and the best way for that to happen is for churches to do it volutarily with the understanding that it sets no precedent beyond that they are caring members of their communities willing to step forward when their government is in trouble.
And if they don’t, then its time they not expect the rest of us to pay for the fire engine to show up when their national television outreach broadcast uplink center catches on fire.