When politicians want your money

Robert Sirico

The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, which I founded with Kris Mauren a quarter of a century ago, recently received a check for $193,077. But this was not a donation.

It comes as the result of a protracted battle with the city of Grand Rapids to recognize the tax-exempt status of the institute’s property. In 2012, when the institute bought a run-down building in the city’s resurgent downtown and started renovating it, we were surprised to receive a visit from the tax assessor’s office — and the sizable assessments that ensued given the Institute has long been accorded 501(c)(3) status by the Internal Revenue Service.

Earlier attempts to gain an exemption came to naught, so the institute finally brought its case before the state Tax Tribunal, while making every attempt to settle out of court.

We were assured earlier from then-City Attorney Catherine Mish that it all wasn’t political, but a brief signed and submitted by assistant city attorneys tells another story.

The city made the accusation that the Acton Institute “is a politically driven think tank that publishes right-wing libertarian, philosophical and political propaganda tempered with extreme-right religious viewpoints.” The city further alleged that our educational curricula and publications were “tailored narrowly to the mission of spreading its right-wing libertarian viewpoint.”

It’s clear Acton was being denied this exemption for so long not on the merits, but on personal and political grounds. An undercurrent of menace is unmistakable throughout the brief, directed at our religious and economic teachings.

This is part of a larger trend of over-spending city bureaucrats targeting nonprofits to make up for the city’s own mismanagement of funds.

Big box stores and other commercial property owners in Michigan are launching aggressive challenges to their property tax assessments. Some have been successful, reducing in-flows to local government coffers accordingly. Also, cities often have higher concentrations of nonprofit hospitals and universities whose properties are exempt. With deep-pocketed commercial entities too tough to take on, nonprofits become easy prey.

The Acton Institute won this round, but who will be singled-out next?

It bodes ill for both the republic and civil society that any government feels itself entitled to attack a taxpayer for its perceived beliefs. And, that the answer to budget shortfalls is always more taxation — never less spending. This as government power at all levels grows unchecked.

Governments would do better to live within their means by removing burdens on private organizations that help communities flourish.

The Rev. Robert A. Sirico, author of Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, is president of the Acton Institute.