So now this is a thing (I've seen it at Esquire and Salon, so....), and here is an article that purports to give it actual numbers (all the other sites I found when I googled the "$600 billion in church property" claim was websites with even less reason to be assumed credible).
First, of course, there's the requirement of all basic math tests: show your work. Where does this $600 billion dollar number come from? Who knows? But it only includes "actual churches, mosques, etc.," so it's a "low number."
Oh, and there's this: "Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get "parsonage exemptions" that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they're doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits)."
Uh, no. I paid for the value of the parsonage as part of my income (since it was income to me). I also paid my taxes quarterly, not from my paycheck but based on my estimate of my taxable income. I was not part of the "only group allowed to opt out of Social Security," unless you mean the only non-governmental group. Most state government employees around the country are exempt from Social Security, a group that includes school teachers and school district employees. Which ain't the ideal you think it is, but priests, rabbis, ministers, and 2 corinthians are not "the only group" with that status. (And churches are the entities "opting out" of Social Security taxes, for the same reason the states do it; think about it a minute.... Churches also don't withhold taxes for ministers, which is why we have to pay quarterly. Believe me, you wouldn't like paying your taxes quarterly.) I had no other "living expenses" that I earned tax-free. Any money the church paid me was income, unless it was paid into a retirement fund (which will pay me far less than Social Security will.)
So if we start there, and I already know the information is bad, why am I supposed to rely on it? Because the author is a "serious sociologist"? He may be, but as a tax expert, he sucks.
So where does this $600 billion claim come from? Well, remember the Crystal Cathedral, and how Schuller heirs and church had to sell it? And who did they sell it to? Donald Trump? Ivan Bosky? No, they sold it to another church (the Catholics, IIRC). Ever tried to sell a church building? You pretty much have to sell it to another church. It isn't usually on a piece of land worth razing the building for, and the building is seldom worth renovating for new use (I know of two cases where a building was reused; one, in Austin, became an office building; the other is a library in Houston. Exceptions that prove the rule.) So where does the number come from? As my bankruptcy lawyer used to say about real estate appraisals, there are three kinds: windshield, wild-ass, and hell if I know but it looks good on paper! This number sounds like it looks good on paper.
My former church has a huge sanctuary (build to hold hundreds, which is big for such a small church) and a cemetery. Who is going to buy that property and relocate, or maintain, that cemetery? The City of Chicago relocated a UCC church to build O'Hare airport. The cemetery for the church remained, and while Chicago considered moving the cemetery a few years ago, word is they finally decided it was too much trouble.
So, yeah, churches own "valuable property." Well, maybe Joel Osteen's church does, but I doubt the combined value of churches in America amounts to $600 billion, even in the days immediately before the S&L crisis, when real estate all over the country was wildly inflated. I really would have to see the math on that (but it's on the internet! And it's from an article published by a prominent atheist group! So it must be true!).
As for taxing churches: most churches have a budget of about $100,000.00. I give that as the average from my experience; I figure it's actually better grounded than the $600 billion dollar figure. Of that, the pastor probably gets about half (you want to live on $50,000 for the rest of your career? 'Cause that's about how well you're gonna do. Just sayin'.....). About 40% of what's left goes to bills (utilities) and maintenance (savings for a rainy day, like a leaky roof). The roof of the sanctuary at my last church was going to cost about $100,000 to repair, if repair it ever needed (and eventually it would). And that was 15 years ago.*
Maybe half of the remaining 50% goes to charitable purposes; maybe only the 20% left over in my original calculation. Which is the point: churches are charities. And damned few of them are run by Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. Tax the income of churches, and suddenly it's: why am I giving this money to the government? The more people give, the more government takes (if taxes are based on income). And how do you assess the market value of a property nobody wants to buy? Do you give an unfair advantage to churches that have existed for 400 years (as some in New Mexico and San Antonio, Texas have)? Or do you tax those congregations out of existence and subject their historic buildings to the wrecking ball?
Let me put it bluntly: Bill Maher is an idiot who knows nothing and in his ignorance thinks he knows all he needs to know. That blog post at WaPo is equally stupid and baseless, and there's a reason it's not on the pages of the newspaper (newspaper blogs are the worst; they can say anything, but get the imprimatur os legitimate news).
This entire discussion won't get further than the pages of Salon (where it didn't last long) and Wonkblog. But it is a tribute to how little information people need to be assured they know as much as Donald Trump.
Goes a ways to explaining the appeal of Donald Trump, as a matter of fact.
*and as for living in a house your employer owns: it sounds great, until your employer decides your services are no longer needed. Now what do you do? There really is no such thing as a free lunch.