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Are religious groups charities?

August 20, 2012

The Associated Press has a headline that reads “Less religious states give less to charity,” based on a study released by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Buried beneath the lede is an interesting nugget: AP writer Jay Lindsay notes that “[c]hurches are among the organizations counted as charities by the study, and some states in the Northeast rank in the top 10 when religious giving is not counted.”

Actually, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy,

Religion plays a major role in how much money Americans give to charity. The parts of the country that tend to be more religious are also more generous.

Donors in Southern states, for instance, give roughly 5.2 percent of their discretionary income to charity—both to religious and to secular groups—compared with donors in the Northeast, who give 4.0 percent.

But the generosity ranking changes when religion is taken out of the picture. People in the Northeast give the most, providing 1.4 percent of their discretionary income to secular charities, compared with those in the South, who give 0.9 percent.

A more appropriate AP headline might be “Less religious states give less to churches.” Still, a few folks are attempting to use these findings to justify that churches should not be considered charities.

Perhaps we can debate whether or not religious giving equals “generosity” when Mormons are required to tithe 10 percent of their income to remain church members in good standing. But as an unapologetic atheist, I find the argument that religious groups should be excluded from charitable status a bit silly. For what it’s worth, the IRS generally refers to all 501(c)(3) organizations as “charities,” including colleges and universities with large endowments and tax-exempt advocacy groups. After all, the American Legislative Exchange Council is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Now, maybe we should reevaluate charitable status as a whole. I support that discussion. Until then, despite my stubbornly secular perspective, I can’t help but acknowledge that religious organizations can have tremendous service impact.

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