In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant's message to Congress included a 900-foot petition containing 35,000 signatures stating, "We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation."
"I would," said Grant to Congress, "also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land....it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property....In 1850, the church properties in the U.S. which paid no taxes, municipal or state, amounted to about $83 million. In 1860, the amount had doubled; in 1875, it is about $1 billion. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3 billion....so vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of government without bearing its portion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes....I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation."
Unfortunately, Grant's warning went unheeded by Congress. By 1971, the amount of real and personal property owned by U.S. churches had ballooned to approximately $110 billion.
In New York City alone, the amount was $750 million in 1969, $1 billion in 1982, and $3 billion in 1989.
In Wisconsin, hotels, pay parking lots, farms, and communion wafer bakeries are among the church holdings that are tax exempt. Overall, about $4.2 billion in tax-exempt religious property now exists in that state.
In 1993, there were 3,000 parcels in Clearwater, Florida worth about $1.2 billion are off the tax rolls because they are owned by religious organizations.
The case for taxing religious property today is stronger than ever. The financial power of religious organizations has grown astronomically, despite rather modest growth in church membership (church attendance has hovered around 40 to 45 percent of the total U.S. population for the past several decades). In addition to the growth in the value of religious property, religious income has grown to the point where a 1986 estimate showed religious income in that year of approximately $100 billion, or about five times the income of the five largest corporations in the U.S. (the figure can only be a rough approximation due to the immense difficulty associated with determining unreported religious income).
In 1968, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury stated that no reliable estimates are available to determine the extent of religious investments and business operations. He noted that most religious organizations were no longer dependent on charitable contributions and membership fees. With tax exemptions, they had developed funds that multiply through investment, and any investment they make usually bears no relation to the community's evaluation of the churches' supposed role in the community. The economic growth of religious organizations today, according to the secretary, "is limited only by the financial acumen and commercial skills of its managers."
Religion, in other words, had become big business.