- Jesus Christ and the Tribute Money image via Shutterstock
The Arkansas legislature is considering two dramatically different views of tax reduction. One approach benefits the wealthiest Arkansans who already pay the lowest effective tax rates in the state. An alternative approach gives the most tax relief to the middle and low-income Arkansas families who already pay the highest effective tax rates in the state. This is not only a policy choice, it's also a moral choice.
As faith leaders we are morally and ethically inspired to oppose growing inequities in our state tax code and in our economy as a whole. That inspiration compels us to remind our lawmakers of the moral and ethical case for fairness in our tax code and to reassert our broader concerns for the well-being of the middle class and the poor.
What do tax policies have to do with faith? Why should people of faith care?
Tax policy often affects the middle and low income working families of Arkansas the most, forcing them to shoulder more of the state's tax burden.
We care because our faith calls us to care. We look to scripture to find a rationale for our actions as people of faith. Our faith tradition affirms that all people were created in God's image with inherent worth and dignity regardless of their economic status.
Throughout the Old Testament we learn about God's unwavering concern for the poor. The lawyers in the Book of Deuteronomy speak of doing justice, justly. The Torah has numerous admonitions about treating those who are poor with righteousness and justice. Then, the Prophets, speaking on behalf of God, called the Hebrew people to repentance when they failed to see the poor in their midst.
Jesus grew up and was nurtured from this moral and ethical foundation. That is what inspired Jesus to challenge his followers throughout the gospels to "care for the least of these." This focus on "the least of these" is what the Christian gospels show Jesus understood as included in the reign of God, the new era of justice promised in the Old Testament. Like the Hebrew prophets, Jesus called for an era of justice when the voiceless would have voice and when harsh policies would no longer exist that oppressed "the least of these." The gospel of Matthew clearly states that when we take care of the poor we are serving God.
As people of faith, we are called to seek justice for "the least of these" and care for what affects the quality of their daily lives. This faith places requirements upon the followers.
Today, six out of every 10 families in Arkansas (60 percent of our population) earn less than $44,000 a year. They pay roughly 12 cents of every dollar they earn in taxes. But Arkansans who earn more than $300,000 (1 percent of our population) pay only 6 cents of every dollar in taxes.
A system that taxes middle and low income earners TWICE what the highest earners pay is not moral and just.
Yet several proposals being considered by Arkansas legislators would make the existing unfair system even WORSE. HB 1966 cuts taxes on investment profits, vastly benefiting the wealthiest Arkansans. HB 1585 lowers the Arkansas income tax in a manner that would give the top 5 percent of wage earners half the tax reduction. Both bills passed the House Revenue and Tax Committee last week and now move to the House floor. How can these legislative proposals be considered moral and just?
In contrast, two other proposals introduced this session would make our tax system fairer and more just. HB 1240 would provide an earned income tax credit to the working poor. And HB 1926 is an income tax reduction weighted heavily in favor of middle and low income families.
We believe that Arkansas needs a fair and responsible tax system. Those who earn the most should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than those who are just barely scraping by. We need a system where all Arkansans pay their fair share.
As people of faith, we cannot morally stand silent while the inequities in the Arkansas tax code are made more egregious for the middle and lower income people of Arkansas. Our faith calls us to speak out for tax legislation that makes our system more just, fair and moral.
Rev. Stephen Copley is Chair of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance. Rev. Pat Bodenhamer is the United Methodist Pastor in Diamond City. Rev. Wendell Griffen is Pastor at New Millennium Church, Little Rock. Rev. Howard Gordon is Pastor Emeritus of First Presbyterian Church, Little Rock, and is a member of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel Board.