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"Religious Storm Nears Colorado"

What started as a movement in Colorado to tax non-profit organizations, including churches and religious groups, may spread far beyond the Rocky Mountains after the November 5 ['96] election. That's when citizens will get the chance to vote on a controversial proposal known as Amendment 11, a measure that would put churches and most other nonprofit groups on the tax rolls for the first time. Behind the effort is John Murphy, an attorney and critic of institutionalized religion.

When Murphy began his crusade and founded Coloradans for Fair Property Tax, most of the pundits thought the measure wouldn't even make it on to the ballot. But 66,000 signatures later, Amendment 11 is causing what one paper describes as a "religious storm," and shaking up some powerful religious groups which over the past decade have moved into towns like Colorado Springs, and become a potent force in local and state politics.

Murphy's proposal is no longer being dismissed as a long shot. On Friday, USA TODAY noted that poll in September showed that 38% of the voters agreed with Amendment 11, while 52% opposed it and 10% were unsure. "But both sides agree the numbers are shaky," says the paper, and as a result many non-profits are worried.

Indeed, Mr. Murphy's call for fair taxation has united just about all of the religious groups in the state, from evangelicals and Catholics to mainline Protestants, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu groups. The Colorado Association of Non-Profit Organizations has built up a huge $750,000 war chest to fight the initiative, and joined with other organizations including the Church Management Association, Colorado Council of Churches, and even religious right groups such as James Dobon's Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family. Estimates of the total amount being used to fight Amendment 11 run as high as $2,000,000.

Supporters of the proposal estimate that taxing non-profits would yield between $70 million and $100 million each year. But for Murphy and others, there are deeper issues than "just the economy, stupid." The underlying question is who should pay for basic services, everything from trash pick-up to fire protection. And Murphy told USA TODAY that the tax free status for many non-profits is unfair, in that it gives them an advantage in competing in the marketplace with private businesses. He used the example of a wealthy church which offered day care for its members. "These are people who can pay for their damn day care," he told the paper. "Why do I have to pay for wealthy people's kids?"

Critics have howled in protest, though, that the Murphy initiative would hurt people who benefit from the outreach of both secular and religious non-profits who provide a wide range of social services -- everything from soup kitchens to clinics and food banks. And the Rev. Lucia Guzman of the Colorado Council of Churches warned that up to 700 churches in the state might have to shut down if Amendment 11 wins at the ballot box.

But critics note that more and more of the "charity" claimed by religious groups and other non-profits is really government, taxpayer money which the organizations simply administer. Even the enormous Catholic Charities, USA now depends on government block grants for 65% of its budget. And the Fair Tax groups points out that "If this proposal passes, taxpayers can then contribute the extra money from their decreased tax bills...to the church or non-profit of their choice. It would be their choice, not the governments."

Church and State While religious groups have closed ranks and raised their own anti-Amendment 11 campaign budget estimated at $500,000, the squabble transcends question of money. Supporters of the initiative say that it will strengthen state-church separation by treating religious groups in the same way private businesses and other organizations are taxed. A representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, though -- a Baptist-funded organization which usually supports First Amendment efforts and opposes school prayer or partisan politicking by churches -- warned that Amendment 11 could ensnare government in religious matters. A spokesman for AU told the Ogden, Utah Standard Examiner that the initiate "would allow religious schools to be tax-exempt, but not the actual buildings in which people worship, while the whole point of religious schools is to support what's being taught in those churches."

Support Growing ? Whatever flaws might exist in the Murphy proposal, though, the basic concept of making all non-profits, including religious groups and churches pay at least part of their share seems to be growing. Religious leaders fear that the concept behind the Murphy Amendment could take hold elsewhere, especially as local government scramble to find new sources of funding. A Portland, Maine City Council representative told USA TODAY that "The era of simply allowing nonprofits to hold a larger and larger tax umbrella over themselves is over. "

Some cities like Philadelphia are now "asking" non-profits to pay at least some share of their property taxes to help alleviate red ink in the municipal budget. Other towns like Buffalo, N.Y. have begun charging all users for basic services like garbage pickup.

The issue of taxing religious and other non-profits is also being raised on the legal front. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on whether local and state governments can void the property tax exemption for charitable groups if most of the people they serve are not local residents. That case involves a Christian Science summer camp within the jurisdiction of Harrison, Maine, which has been presented a $22,000 a year property tax bill. The city points out that 95% of the campers are from outside the state. Last year, the Maine Supreme Court ruled that the town had the legal right to tax the camp, a decision which according to the New York Times "alarmed religious groups and other nonprofit organizations around the country."

The idea of taxing non-profits, or at least charging for services which until now have been provided either free of charge or at reduced rates may appeal in certain urban areas which have seen a serious erosion in the ratable tax base. But win or lose, John Murphy's feisty call for fair taxation has struck a chord; it may prove to be one that the churches cannot silence.

 Edited and written by Conrad F. Goeringer.  10/17/96.

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