THE OTHER SIDE OF LAW
During his time, Benjamin Franklin, the classic overachiever and one of America’s founding fathers was known for his strong views about the importance of separating religion from politics or call it the state.
Indeed he went ahead to state ; “when a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it's a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
However Franklin’s philosophy seized to apply when religion was commercialized and became a multi million dollar industry. The same philosophy became irrelevant once criminal activity started to manifest in the church.
In American there is what now they call pastor -entrepreneurship. Churches are now fully-fledged business entities complete with human resource management departments. They employ business planners , skilled labour to do all sorts of work including auditing of accounts. We are talking about big money here.
With an estimated 20,000 Pentecostal churches in Uganda its difficult to determine the extent of religious investments and business operations. There is no readily available data about the properties of these churches that are exempted from Tax.
The Uganda Revenue Authority Act exempts the Pentecostal churches from paying tax because there are erroneously (emphasis mine) considered to be Non Government Organisations NGOs involved in voluntary work and charity.
Far from the truth. The Pentecostal movement in cohort with its American partners has turned into a huge commercial enterprise. The case for taxing religious property today is stronger than ever. The financial power of religious organizations has grown astronomically.
The economic growth of religious organizations today is limited only by the financial acumen and commercial skills of its managers (read pastors).Religion, in other words, has become big business.
With tax exemptions, the churches have developed funds that multiply through investments which unfortunately because of the sole ownership nature of their promoters don’t bear any benefit to the community.
The reasoning that religious tax exemptions are essential because churches relieve government of the burden of providing needed social services does not apply in the Ugandan context. The majority of the born again churches have no demonstrable benefit for society let alone their followers. It’s a case of milking a cow without feeding it.
And because there is no law to regulate these churches its difficult even to determine which of these groups are legitimately religious and which are not. To continue with the policy of religious tax exemptions, the government must either: undertake the "Big Brother" task of investigating all groups to determine which are "sincerely" religious.
There is currently a proliferation of phony churches as a tax dodge
Clearly, a tax levied against only religious organizations would not protect religious freedom as provided for in our constitution.. But if churches are subjected to the same taxes as all other groups such as newspapers (who also enjoy the constitutional freedom of press and speech) it is obvious that there could be no infringement of our constitution.
In fact, in a 1936 U.S. Supreme Court case (Grosjean v. American Press Co.), the Court stated that newspapers are not immune from any of the ordinary forms of taxation, despite the First Amendment requirement that freedom of the press not be infringed upon.
There is no good reason why wealthy churches and a certain amount of property of their leaders (pastors) should be exempted from taxation, while every poor widow in the land, struggling to feed, cloth, and educate a family of children, must be taxed on the narrow lot and humble home.
Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues including advocacy of legal or constitutional positions. In the last presidential elections these same churches took sides to support particular political parties. Of course, churches as much as secular bodies and private citizens have that right.
The legislative purpose of a property tax is to afford government the much needed revenues to provide social services especially to the less privileged. Churches and their leaders should be taxed just like any other business enterprises or employee/employer.
Our tax laws should reflect equity.
Next week: Sodomy victims can recover damages from their tormentors.
The writer is a Journalist and Advocate