According to reports, Missouri has made a controversial decision to join South Dakota and West Virginia as the only states that collect sales taxes on the services rendered by yoga studios. Yoga studio owners claim that they should enjoy the same exemption from the sales tax as churches since they argue that yoga is a spiritual exercise.
Yesterday, 65 Democratic Representatives voted for an amendment that adds restrictions on the funding of abortion, a legal medical procedure, to the House’s health care reform package. The push to impose these restrictions was led by Michigan’s Bart Stupak, a resident of of C-Street, a group of religiously inclined legislators whose C-Street residence is owned by a Christian group described by Jeff Sharlet in his book, The Family, as a secretive evangelical organization that cultivates the powerful in order to achieve its goal of a Christian state. (See also this video of Rachel Maddow’s interview with Sharlet.)
What does taxing yoga studios have in common with the Stupak amendment? Considered in tandem, they suggest that it is time to stop exempting religious organizations from sales, property and income taxes, except in the case of strictly charitable services that do not involve proselytizing.
It would be liberating to churches themselves if we could do away with arcane arguments about whether yoga studios, etc. share religious privilege. Nor would churches need to try to enforce fine distinctions about whether ministers and priests who exercise their right to free speech from the pulpit are endorsing political candidates, or speaking to issues governed by spiritual dogma.
We would also finally begin to treat all our citizens as equals. Church related exemptions are subsidies that the larger group is forced to give to the religious. I don’t support the goals of the NRA and I am not required to support them financially. Why then, must I subsidize the activities of groups defined by a belief in the supernatural that I do not share?
What is particularly galling is that the tax subsidy given to churches may, as the Stupak amendment demonstrates, force me to support the activities of groups that work against my well-being and that seek to violate my right to equal treatment. Consider the background against which the Stupak amendment came into being:
–The opposition to abortion represented by the amendment references religious beliefs.
–These beliefs are not shared by all citizens, religious or otherwise.
–Imposing restrictions on abortion based on religious considerations amounts to imposing the religious beliefs of one segment of the population on everyone.
–Insofar as those restrictions keep some but not all people from legally pursuing their health and well-being in an equitable manner, they violate our a constitutional rights to equitable treatment.
Clearly, this amendment is intended to force all of us to observe the religious strictures of a particular subgroup. With the tax exemptions given to churches, I am being asked to give indirect financial support to organizations that want to suppress my rights, and that have, as C-Street’s Mr. Stupak demonstrates, organized a very effective lobby to do so.
Contrary to Todd Akin’s assertion, the constitution did not come to us via the pilgrims. It does not privilege any religion and it mandates equal treatment for all citizens. If any church wants to try to persuade the citizenry to enact laws that enshrine its principles, fine and good. But none of them should be exempted from taxes no matter how spiritual their motivation.