UNFAIR BUSINESS PRACTICES
Consider the story of two book publishing companies, Focus on the Family, Incorporate(;, and Word, Incorporated, one of the largest publishing houses serving the conservative Protestant world. Both solicit, sign, publish, and pay authors for manuscripts and then publish and sell those books in commercial bookstores, making a profit in the process. Both solicit manuscripts from exactly the same pool of author-- those written by conservative Christians on subjects that would be considered of religious or spiritual help to the reader. Both produce books for sale in exactly the same bookstores. Both advertise and promote. Both enjoy revenue from such sales. However, one of these companies does all the above and pays its fair share of taxes while the other insists that it should not have to pay taxes and does not do so. This second business claims that it has a right as a 501(c)3 to opt out of its share of taxes but still uses the government services that taxes pay for. Why? What is the difference between Focus and Word with regard to the book publishing enterprises of each? Is one a national treasure like the Grand Canyon that we've all decided to preserve and subsidize while Word is on its own to sink or swim in the great competitive marketplace? Are we, as American taxpayers, interested in digging a little deeper into our pockets when our tax bill arrives in order to support the publishing efforts of Focus on the Family, all the while discriminating against the equally valuable work done by Word by not subsidizing their enterprise?
Furthermore, taxes arc not some needless surcharge we inflict on wealthy business people for the fun of it, after which we lock the loot in our national treasury. Taxes pay for services that businesses need and receive from government agencies. The fact is that Focus and Word expect and require exactly the same city, state, and federal services in order to conduct their businesses. One of them pays for those services and one does not. Some of the local property taxes on a company pave the streets in front of its offices. Word pays for the streets its employees use. Dobson claims he should not. Those same taxes pay the electric bill for the lights on those streets. And they construct and maintain the water lines that feed those offices and the sewage lines that drain them. If either corporate staff dials 911, the police or fire fighters will do everything in their power to assist those employees with a crisis. One pays and one does not. Why do we tolerate the unfairness of one company paying for what it uses, while the other demands that everyone else in the community pay a portion of its bill when both compete nose to nose in the marketplace? Why do we accept the uneven competitive playing field created by this inequality?
Christopher Chang, a member of the staff of the city of Pomona, California, office of economic development supplied me with a report analyzing the precise impact on that city of the loss of property taxes, not to mention other taxes levied on normal businesses, when Focus on the Family was occupying office space in Pomona several years ago but not paying taxes. The report shows that Focus owned property with a valuation of $5,115,660, on which the property taxes during their three-year stay in Pomona would have totaled approximately $150,000. An estimated $150,000 in city services were used, but were not paid for by Focus on the Family. So who paid them?
The median annual household income in Pomona was $31,000 when Focus was located there. Pomona's population was 75 percent minorities. So minority families trying to survive in the Los Angeles area on $31,000 a year were given no choice but to pitch in a little extra so millionaire businessman Dobson, who lived twenty miles away in an upper-class white neighborhood, didn't have to pay any property taxes. Focus has not been able to sell its Pomona headquarters building since leaving town for Colorado in 1991. So that piece of property is still off the tax rolls to this day, and those neighbors are still paying for the street light in front of the vacant complex at 801 Corporate Center Drive. We ran do better than that.
Furthermore, doesn't this unfair aspect of our tax system force non-Christians to pay for public services used by a Christian company? Isn't this a breach of the separation of church and state because the state is allowing Focus on the Family not to pay for services it uses while requiring other citizens to support an organization with a decidedly sectarian agenda? Said another way, Focus on the Family actively lobbies Congress against ensuring basic civil rights for gays. However, gay men and lesbians in Colorado Springs are forced to subsidize a portion of the cost of police and fire protection, street maintenance, etc., that Focus uses.
I talked recently with Jarrell McCracken, the founder and former CEO of Word, Incorporated. I asked McCracken if it ever bothered him that Dobson demands tax breaks that give him an unfair business advantage over competitors like himself. His response was, "Yes, and I've thought about that a lot. Anybody who exploits a tax advantage like that has taken it out of the context in which it was given. It becomes a corruption of that intent when it's taken to a commercial level. Jim can say that everything he makes goes into his nonprofit ministry. But the other side of that coin is that he has entered the commercial religious publishing field as a competitor. Not only is he a competitor, he is a competitor with a business advantage. He pays no taxes. I think that's a corruption of the intent of the tax-free status."
So what do we do? I suggest we work to create a fairer society for American business. It will be an uphill struggle because people like Dobson will wrap themselves in the cloak of religion, and Americans have a tradition of not taxing religious enterprises. A geologist named Dan Bridges and a lawyer named John Murphy know firsthand about that struggle. They placed on the 1996 Colorado ballot a measure that would have eliminated the tax-exempt status of all nonprofit, including churches. The measure drew support from one out of every five voters, a surprisingly strong showing for the first public vote on such a bill in any state in our history. Had the measure been more narrowly focused on corporate businesses such as Dobson's, rather than including churches, it's possible Jim might be paying for his own street lights by now.
The most dishonorable criticisms of Colorado's fair share tax idea that eighty thousand petitioners placed on the ballot came from our very own street fighter, James Dobson. He devoted a lengthy segment of an October 1996 national radio broadcast to advancing two responses to Murphy and Bridges that were stereotypical of the way Dobson does politics. First, he inaccurately defined, then demonized, their motives:
John Patrick Michael Murphy has made it very clear that he resents the message that comes from conservative organizations like Focus on the Family, 'that’s the source of the fire. He's going all over the state trying to promote this thing. I understand he spent sixty thousand dollars of his own money trying to get it passed. First of all to get the initiative signed and to get the issue on the ballot. What motivates him? Why? Well, he has very liberal views and he strongly resents organizations like ones that stand for a pro-family and pro-moral message. So it is an effort to get the state to begin to tax not only those organizations, but then all religious organizations-- put a little pressure on 'cm. I guess the implication is that even more taxes could be assessed in the future. But that's the bottom line of what's really going on here.It will come as no surprise to you at this point to ]cam that when I talked at length with both Murphy and Bridges, I discovered that Dobson had never even spoken with the men whose personal motives he castigated in front of five million radio listeners.
Dobson's second strategy for avoiding taxation was equally fallacious. He characterized Colorado's initiative as a strategy not to create fair taxation but rather to gag the message of organizations like Focus on the Family. He told his national audience, "John Patrick Michael Murphy has used us as exhibit A regarding why this amendment ought to pass because we use some of the money that is sent to us to support our public policy views: our views on abortion, and pornography and other things. That's true. Does he want to stifle those who say things he doesn't agree with? Is that the idea?"
In fact, that was not the idea. Murphy and Bridges are as pro-family as Dobson is. By the way, in the process of attacking the initiative, Dobson acknowledged that Focus on the Family's Colorado annual property tax, were they to pay it, would be $550,000. For now, he's content for someone else pay it.
UNFAIR EMPLOYMENT PRACTICES
Another specific problem that our experience with Dobson highlights is the ability of so-called religious organizations to defy the standards of fair employment practices our society has established: to invade the privacy of a company's employees, to coerce them unfairly with threats of termination, to breach even internal company policy, and to obstruct justice and block all avenues to due process when employment grievances arise all in the name of religion, Surely we can provide American workers a fairer workplace than that.
A man I will call Dan Huntley, to preserve his anonymity, is an acquaintance for whom I have a special appreciation. He wrote me a particularly caring and supportive letter at the darkest moment of my conflict with Dobson. I could no longer find work in my profession due to the false rumors Dobson was spreading that I had divorced to marry my secretary and that I had made up false allegations and frivolously sued him. Clients with whom I was building a consulting practice bailed out of all sides of my boat. One highly respected religious radio station manager wrote a colleague, "If Dobson fired him why would anyone hire him?" Eventually, it became clear that I could not continue supporting my family in my chosen field and I started over at forty-five years of age. Dan guessed what I was going through and wrote an unsolicited letter on September 7, 1990, offering his commiseration.
In the letter he related his own struggle with a 501(c)3 religious broadcasting organization where he had been an on-air talk show host. He wrote,
I was terminated promptly and with no due process or hearing because of a letter-writing campaign directed at the station by hyper-conservatives who were disturbed by the fact that I openly supported my wife's feminist ideas and activities. 1, too, decided to go public. Rather than protect the guilty, I decided to let my colleagues know exactly what had happened. One of our problems within conservative Christian circles is that we tend to cover up these ugly affairs "for the sake of the ministry." Unlike you, I decided not to file suit because I wanted to continue to work in my field. What I did not realize was that I would be blacklisted anyway, for telling the truth.One solution, that we eliminate the civil legal immunity of hybrid religious companies like Dobson's, would be fair but very difficult to enact as law. But there's an alternate approach to resolving this problem that may be more practical. It is called the principle of "fair disclosure" or "informed consent," and it is at work as close to you as the nearest pack of cigarettes. The government requires that you be told by cigarette manufacturers that, among other things, "Smoking by pregnant women may result in fetal injury, premature birth, and low birth weight." None of the manufacturer’s or the consumer's freedoms has been abridged by this fair disclosure. The only thing that changed when the law mandated such announcements was that consumers would now be given facts important to their well-being so that they could purchase with their eyes wide open.
We need a similar law requiring that 501(c)3s provide on every employment form, and in every employee handbook, a statement to the effect that civil rights are handled differently by such organizations than by other employers. Such a disclosure might read like this: "Attorney General's Notice: Nonprofit corporations are not required by law to conform to the same standards of fair labor practices as are other employers. Furthermore, should a dispute arise regarding your rights, nonprofits are not accountable to civil courts regarding the resolution of complaints in the same manner as are other corporations."
Allow me to make one final observation about taxation and employee rights. Doesn't it strike you as odd that religious institutions should adopt policies and procedures designed to allow them to do less rather than more than non-religious organizations? A regular American corporation asks of itself, "How can we compete successfully, address bottom line needs, pay our share of taxes, and contribute to the community as a good neighbor?" But Dobson asks, "How can I compete, address the bottom line, and contribute to the community while avoiding my share of taxes?" A regular business asks, "How can we meet all federal and state obligations to our employees as well as provide a competitive work environment that attracts and retains the very best workers?" But Dobson asks, "How can I attract and retain the very best while exempting myself from as many of my nation's employee rights laws as possible?" If you ran a religious organization, wouldn't you want to be known for doing more for your community and your workers, in the name of your God, rather than less?