Book Review of Brunson’s “God and the IRS”

I added this book after the announced publication by Sam Brunson, one of the bloggers I follow on By Common Consent. I’m not very familiar with tax law; I just go with whatever the all-knowing TurboTax algorithm calculates for me. But the intersection between religion and tax law seems particularly relevant in today’s world where clashes between the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause make the front page quite often. This book centers around the concept of religious accommodations, which “aim to exempt religious individuals from generally applicable government regulation when their religious beliefs and practices would otherwise be infringed.” From polygamy, to animal sacrifice, to the smoking of ceremonial peyote, to making cakes for gays and lesbians, religious accommodations generally spark our sense of fairness for both the religious who are being accommodated and the non-religious who are not. Brunson narrows down his scope to religious accommodations in the realm of tax law, but much of the discussion is more broadly applicable.

The book’s premise is that religious accommodation law with regards to taxes is usually resolved in a very ad hoc manner– and tends to put a thumb on the scale of religious accommodation. Brunson proposes a framework whereby religious accommodations can be addressed in a systematic manner by asking the following questions:

  1. Does an individual’s religious cause them to act in a tax-disadvantaged way?
  2. If so, what type of accommodation would put them in a similar after-tax position as other taxpayers without similar constraints?
  3. Are there extrinsic reasons that the tax law should not provide that accommodation?

Brunson gives a historical overview of existing religious accommodations in the tax law including the parsonage allowance (essentially, pastors can exclude their church-provided housing from taxes), Islamic prohibitions on paying interest, donations to religious organizations including tithing, missionary work, and communitarian living arrangements. In the final chapter, he explains how each of these would fare under his proposed accommodation framework.

Brunson knows his tax law, and does a very good job of making it interpretable. I was also very impressed with the clarity of his proposed framework for evaluating religious accommodations, as the previous 10 chapters make such accommodations seem to be based entirely on sentiment. Government policy shouldn’t be entirely made on the fact that it pulls on your heartstrings, or else inequity would inevitably arise.

Brunson writes from a very dispassionate point of view, and whether you are a practicing Catholic or a Freedom from Religion advocate, you can appreciate Brunson’s discussion, and likely many of his conclusions as well. His proposed framework for tax accommodation does away with many existing accommodations for religiously motivated behaviors, but it allows for ones that don’t currently exist ultimately making their evaluation predictable and fair. I hope that his book gets the attention it deserves by lawyers and policymakers when evaluating religious accommodations in tax law.

Brunson specifically excludes from his discussion the tax exempt status of religious organizations specifically focusing on the taxation of religious individuals. I believe he included a few references in regard to tax-exempt organizations, and I’d like to read up on those next, as it seems this topic also receives complaint on social media very often these days.

As a Mormon, two topics of relevance that do come up are tithing and missionary work. Tithing (as well as the auditing in Scientology) brought up the idea of religious consumption, which Brunson argues should be treated as regular consumption and shouldn’t be tax-deductible. If tithing is a charitable donation, it should be treated as any other charitable donation. But if you receive something for paying tithing (access to Mormon temples, for instance), the value of the received benefits shouldn’t be tax deductible. Since the benefits of tithing are intangible, Brunson concludes that the current practice of tithing being tax-deductible is correct.

With regards to missionary work, Brunson argues that donations to the church for missionary work should still be treated as donations to a tax-exempt organization, but that missionaries should not be able to deduct their “income” or living wages the church provides them, which LDS missionaries are currently allowed to do. Whether your employer is a God or a for-profit company, your taxes should still be evaluated in the same way.

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