Do Tax Breaks “Establish” Religion?

[Breaking blog silence here. General craziness has kept me from spending much time on Fors Clavigera. What blogging time/energy I’ve had has gone into The Church and Postmodern Culture blog and Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank.]

The New York Times recently published an interesting series of articles on the ways in which religious organizations receive all kinds of benefits and exemptions from various agencies and arms of the federal government: see “In God’s Name,” Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Granted, such policies do not seem to violate the “establishment” clause, since the same benefits are extended to all religions. So the government is clearly not in the business of establishing “a” religion. However, the Part 4 article raises a question that has always nagged me: what about non-religious (“secular”) organizations and individuals who sacrificially devote themselves to the common good? Should the pastor of the megachurch in a wealthy Chicago suburb get tax-free housing, while the inner-city teacher who devotes her life to serving the disadvantaged does not? While such policies do not establish “a” religion, they do seem to establish “religion” over non-religious commitments to serve the common good. And it doesn’t seem to me that a “liberal” or constitutionally “secular” state has the resources to extend such benefits to religious organizations but not non-religious ones.