Churches do not pay federal and state income taxes on their basic operations. However, neither do other nonprofit organizations such as colleges, universities, hospitals, and private foundations. It would be interesting for Oliver to compare the lifestyles of the individuals who lead these tax-exempt institutions with the life-styles of the church leaders of whom Oliver is so critical.
Interestingly, one phenomenon which troubles Oliver—small donors sending cash contributions to televangelical churches—is not problematic from a tax perspective. Oliver obviously disapproves of these donors and their responsiveness to televangelists’ appeals. However, small donors’ contributions are typically not tax deductible. Contributions to churches and other charitable institutions are deductible by the taxpayer only if the taxpayer itemizes personal deductions on his Form 1040. This occurs only among more affluent donors whose deductible outlays exceed their standard deduction for income tax purposes.
For 2015, a single taxpayer’s standard deduction is $6,300, while the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly is $12,600. Thus, the modest donations cited by Oliver, while large relative to the donors’ low incomes, are generally not tax deductible because donors with limited incomes typically do not contribute enough to itemize their deductions. The real beneficiaries of the Internal Revenue Code’s charitable deduction are upper-middle class and wealthy taxpayers. These affluent taxpayers typically do not contribute to churches, but to such secular entities as universities and museums.
Edward A. Zelinsky, bringing some facts.