Two weeks ago, with a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the way, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, which ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to think Sen. Lee’s fears are unwarranted, and they can even point to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Friday’s case, which promises “that religious organizations and persons [will be] given proper protection.”
But I don’t think Sen. Lee is crazy. In the 1983 Bob Jones University case, the court ruled that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy.” So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I’m a gay-rights supporter who was elated by Friday’s Supreme Court decision — but I honor Sen. Lee’s fears.
I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.
The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes. In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. Since then, state and local laws nearly everywhere have exempted nonprofits from all, or most, property tax and state income tax. This system of tax exemptions and deductions took shape partly during World War I, when it was feared that the new income tax, with top rates as high as 77%, might choke off charitable giving. But whatever its intentions, today it’s a mess, for several reasons.
First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way. Since the world’s great religion scholars can’t agree on what a religion is, it’s absurd to ask a bunch of accountants, no matter how well-meaning. You can read part of the IRS’s guidelines for what’s a bona fide religion here; suffice it to say that it has an easier time saying what’s not a religion. The site gives the example of the rejection of an application from an “outgrowth of a supper club … whose primary activities were holding meetings before supper, sponsoring the supper club, and publishing a newsletter” but which professed a religious doctrine of “ethical egoism.”
On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. Never mind that the Scientology is secretive, or that it charges for its courses; or that its leader, David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status. And many churches and synagogues sit on exceedingly valuable tracts of land (walk up and down Fifth Avenue to see what I mean). The property taxes they aren’t paying have to be drawn from business owners and private citizens — in a real sense, you and I are subsidizing Mormon temples, Muslims mosques, Methodist churches.
We’re also subsidizing wealthy organizations sitting in the middle of poor towns. Yale University has an endowment of about $25 billion, yet it pays very little to the city of New Haven, which I (as a resident) can assure you needs the money. At the prep school I attended (current endowment: $175 million), faculty houses, owned by the school, were tax-exempt, on the theory that teachers sometimes had students over for dinner, where they talked about history or literature or swim practice.
Meanwhile, although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions. Conservatives are footing the bill for taxes that Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, doesn’t pay — while liberals are making up revenue lost from the National Rifle Association. I could go on. In short, the exemption-and-deduction regime has grown into a pointless, incoherent agglomeration of nonsensical loopholes, which can allow rich organizations to horde plentiful assets in the midst of poverty.
Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argue that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens.
Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it. They can afford to, more than millions of poorer New Yorkers whose tax bills the synagogue and church exemptions are currently inflating.
So yes, the logic of gay-marriage rights could lead to a reexamination of conservative churches’ tax exemptions (although, as long as the IRS is afraid of challenging Scientology’s exemption, everyone else is probably safe). But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. I can see keeping some exemptions; hospitals, in particular, are an indispensable, and noncontroversial, public good. And localities could always carve out sensible property-tax exceptions for nonprofits their communities need. But it’s time for most nonprofits, like those of us who faithfully cut checks to them, to pay their fair share.
Read next: Episcopalians Vote to Allow Gay Marriage in Churches
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There are certain things guaranteed to set off an internet firestorm. Talk about climate change, mention Monsanto, or bring up the treatment of women in video games. And you can, especially in recent years, piss off a whole bunch of people simply by writing about bikes and cars. Nothing seems to bring out the angry caps lock and personal attacks faster than transportation issues.
A recent report showing more cyclists are dying on US streets prompted a remarkable number of stories about cyclist safety. And in the comments section of each, people rehashed the same tired arguments over and over.
So, before the next big wave of internet arguing, I propose we retire a few overused and underwhelming opinions in the bikes vs. cars debate. Though I drive and bike, my allegiances skew toward cyclists (feel free to scroll straight the comments and yell at me). But beyond my personal judgments lie a great many studies and data showing most of the pro-motorist arguments just don’t hold up. I know it’s hard to be wrong, especially on the internet, but here are a few sentences I hope we see less of in the future.
1. Cyclists always break the law
Let’s get this one out of the way first, because it’s the one you hear most often: “I can’t respect cyclists because they ignore stop signs” or “Cyclists don’t seem to understand the rules of the road.” And yeah, when I’m on my bike, I sometimes bend traffic laws and see other cyclists doing the same.
The question is, how often does this happen? And how angelic are drivers? The data is a little hard to come by: Nobody, as far as I can tell, has placed a camera on the shoulders of drivers and cyclists and measured how well they follow the rules of traffic. But there is some information. One British study found that six out of ten cyclists admit to running red lights. Last year, New York magazine sent an intern out to see how cyclists handled traffic lights at three intersections. She found only 14, 22, and 36.6 percent of riders stopped at red lights, respectively.
How about cars? Well, an internet questionnaire found two-thirds of drivers admit to breaking the law at some point. The Society of Automotive Engineers concluded that US drivers use their turn signals just half the time when changing lanes, and only a quarter of the time when turning improperly, which could be responsible for as many as two million accidents annually. And that 14-to-36 percent compliance rate for bikers? It’s a little offset by the fact that New York City drivers collectively run 1.23 million red lightsper day.
The truth is that we’re just not that great at not breaking the law. Cyclists neglect to follow some rules, mostly rolling though stop signs and going through red lights if there’s no cross traffic. Drivers tend to forget the following things are illegal (at least in California): Speeding, tailgating, not signaling, not stopping before a right turn, getting behind the wheel while drunk, texting or using a cell phone without the hands-free option, double parking, throwing trash (including cigarette butts) out the window, failing to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, making a U-turn when there’s a ‘No U-turn’ sign, honking your horn just because you’re angry, and yes, running red lights and rolling through stop signs.
I’m not saying two wrongs make a right. That drivers break the law doesn’t make it okay for cyclists to do so. I'm trying to point out that traffic laws are some of the least important and most commonly disregarded rules on our books. Drivers break them every day, casually, and usually without much thought. But the way some people talk about rule-breaking cyclists, you’d think our traffic laws were equivalent to the Bill of Rights, Geneva Conventions, and Magna Carta rolled up into one.
My conclusion is, chill out. Most people see cars breaking laws every day without saying “I don’t respect drivers” or “Drivers really need to learn the rules of the road.” Sitting on a bike seat doesn’t somehow turn you into a monster anymore than getting behind the wheel does. Cyclists don’t break the rules because they’re bad people, they do it because they’re people.
2. Roads are designed for cars
So I looked into it and, as it turns out, roads have been around for many thousands of years. And for much of that time, they've carried a wide variety of things: feet, carts, horses, wagons, streetcars, buses, bikes, and automobiles. It’s only in the last six or seven decades that we’ve decided cars should get priority.
The roads don’t control us, we control them. We can design them to carry whatever types of traffic we feel are useful, and provide for safe and convenient passage of those different modes. But after World War II, many forces in the US—suburban planning, interstate highway development, the movement of the middle-class out of cities—conspired to create a motorist-dominated streetscape. These days, most state departments of transportation evaluate roads using one metric, called Level of Service.
LOS doesn’t tell engineers how safe a street is for pedestrians, or how convenient it is for buses. It measures only one thing: How many cars you can move through an intersection in a given period. Any delay in auto traffic is a bad thing, to be rectified by shrinking sidewalks, increasing lane widths, and removing crosswalks and on-street parking. The problem is that making driving easier also encourages more driving, a phenomenon known as induced demand, which causes traffic engineers to chase ever-diminishing returns in trying to improve LOS. These days, many cities and states are reevaluating their reliance on LOS, with California set to ditch it entirely.
But for so many years, we’ve auto-oriented our roads and put every single other mode of travel at a disadvantage. More troublingly, we’ve auto-oriented our minds, making it hard to imagine that things could ever be any different.
3. Cyclists are dangerous
The CDC notes that though only 1 percent of trips are made by bike in the US, cyclists face a higher risk of crash-related injuries than drivers. Around 700 people on bikes are killed a year on the road, and cyclists occasionally hit and injure or kill pedestrians. Therefore, some might say, bikers are reckless, with an utter disregard for their own safety and the safety of others.
Look, cyclists have a responsibility to stay safe and look out for others. But drivers are operating much more powerful, much heavier vehicles at high speeds. And if there’s anything Spiderman’s Uncle Ben taught me, it’s that great power comes with great responsibility.
The US ranks behind many developed countries in traffic safety, with automobiles killing nearly 34,000 people a year. That’s equivalent to a Boeing 747 crashing and killing everyone on board every single week, year after year. If planes were crashing once per week, would you consider it safe to fly? While we call these things accidents, the truth is our roads are far deadlier than they need to be. One of the things we can do to avoid so much carnage is redesign streets to slow down the automobiles.
A 2013 study from the AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety found that a person struck by a car at 25 miles per hour has a 10 percent risk of dying. At 40 mph that risk increases to 50 percent. In places with high numbers of pedestrians and cyclists, speed limits can be reduced in the name of safety, something that New York City has recently done. I understand we can’t engineer away all collisions, and some people will still die on our roads, but that’s not really a good excuse for not trying to reducing their harm.
4. There’s not enough room for bike lanes without causing gridlock
Driving in the US is relatively cheap and convenient. Gas taxes are low, the roads have been designed with speeding in mind, and highways connect far-flung places. It’s not really surprising that many people fear changing this system. After all, it seems to most that removing a traffic lane will reduce the capacity of the road and clog things up for drivers.
But traffic engineering is actually a little counter-intuitive. It turns out you can take away auto traffic lanes and not have a significant slowdown for drivers. When protected bike lanes are implemented well, they have been found to improve everyone’s safety, generate more revenue for shops along the street, and, yep, even speed up car traffic. With good design, cycling infrastructure fits easily into city roads and intersections.
This actually make more sense when you realize that a bike lane isn’t necessarily reducing capacity, it’s allowing people to switch to another mode of transport. Cities have a finite size. Bikes and public transit are more space-efficient ways of moving large groups of people. We can try to keep squeezing cars in, requiring more lanes and more parking, or maybe realize that such a system will never completely work and take a different tack.
5. Cyclists just want everyone to stop driving
You often hear that some people want to “coerce people out of their cars.” If that’s the case, then why are nearly all Americans still driving to work? Every time most people step out of their house to go somewhere, they’re more or less required to get into a small motorized box and drive. We’ve auto-oriented our thinking so much that hardly anybody even questions this fact anymore.
Cars are great. They’re convenient, they shrink distances, they get people to exactly where they want to go. But they’re also noisy, polluting, and deadly. What I think most cycling advocates would tell you is that driving a car shouldn’t be the default option for every outing. By some estimates, something like 40 to 70 percent of car trips are under two miles, a distance that could easily be covered by biking or frequent transit.
There’s a bike lane by my house that suddenly ends for no reason, dropping me in a lane filled with fast-moving cars. How would drivers feel if their lane came to a stop and deposited them on a railroad track? If we had fully separated and protected bike lanes in a well-connected grid—as in high-cycling countries like Denmark and the Netherlands—more people would feel comfortable using them and perhaps even a few would be “coerced” out of their cars.
6. Drivers pay for roads so they should get priority
I’m sorry, but your gas taxes don’t cover the cost of roads and highways. Since the interstate system was implemented in 1947, US spending on highways has exceeded the amount collected from fuel and vehicle fees by more than $600 billion. Where has the rest of that money come from? Mostly bonds, property taxes, and the general fund. So even if you don’t drive, you’re paying for highways, a type of infrastructure that only cars can use. Roads in your city are generally financed through local, property, and sales taxes.
Designing our cities around cars, as we’ve done for the last few decades, requires large seas of parking and long highways to get people around. Auto-oriented design can decrease density to the point where the tax revenue generated by homes and business no longer covers the cost of maintaining roads and other infrastructure. Such a system, where municipalities don’t have the necessary funds to maintain what they’ve built, has been referred to as a Ponzi Scheme and represents a massive expenditure of money from all of us in favor of drivers.
7. Cycling is a fad
Sure, cycling in many major US cities has tripled since 1990, and even increased significantly in smaller and mid-size cities. But how do we know it will last? What happens if we redesign our streets only to find that all the bikers disappeared?
I suppose there’s that risk. Maybe tomorrow, many cyclists will wake up and realize that they’ve been duped, and that all they ever really wanted was a car. But there’s a good amount of data to suggest that won’t be the case. In the first place, rates of driving in the US seem to have peaked. While earlier generations have been mostly mono-modal, 70 percent of millennials (those folks born between 1980 and 2000) say they use multiple forms of transportation to get around, including walking, biking, driving, and public transit. As a member of this generation, I can tell you anecdotally that most of my friends have a bike and use it all the time. Even those with kids still ride, often with the little ones strapped into a seat on the front. I hope that when I have children, they will inherit a world with less auto pollution and more protected bike lanes.
8. There’s a war on cars
Ah yes, the War on Cars. Taking away parking spots, replacing automotive lanes with bike or transit-only lanes, and slowing drivers down. The tireless effort from wicked anti-car groups who love to rub their hands together, cackle, and think up new ways to piss off motorists. Or at least, that’s how some people seem to view it.
How do I know the War on Cars is not really a thing? Because I’ve been outside my house, and seen that there are still cars everywhere. It’s a lot like the phantom War on Christmas that has yet to stop the month-long wreath, candy cane, Santa Claus, and Christmas tune-fest that takes over this country every December.
Our roads are already heavily tilted in favor of cars. Yet drivers seem to hate the idea of being slightly inconvenienced so that other modes of transport might be safer and more appealing. Pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit users have been incredibly inconvenienced for decades, all so automobiles could get where they’re going a bit faster. Redesigning streets is not a “war” against cars. It’s just acknowledgment that they don’t have to be the only thing on the road.
9. People absolutely need cars to get around
If we take away cars, how will people go to the store? Or carry large equipment around? Or take their grandmother to her doctor’s appointment?
Well, probably some of those things will be done by bike. Using cargo bikes and trailers, people ride around with their children, haul groceries, and even move their furniture. In general, drivers aren’t ferrying a couch and an elderly family member on every trip they take (though I haven’t actually checked this).
What it comes down to is that there are many different tools for many different jobs. In many places, like low-density cities and suburban areas, I understand that cars will probably continue to be extremely useful and likely the dominant mode of transportation. But in more crowded cities, it makes more sense to move beyond one single mode of transportation and give people more options and more freedom.
Now, feel free to get into the comments and debate how our cities should respond to the needs of everyone who uses public roads. But please, think carefully before using any of the above arguments. If you can do better, we'd love to hear it.