COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- If John Patrick Michael Murphy has his
way, this state would become the first in the nation to impose
property taxes on its churches, charities and groups like the Boy
"You can't blame the other side for being scared, `cause we're
planning to change the world as they know it," says Murphy, who
helped place the controversial initiative on Colorado's ballot this
That's no exaggeration. If approved -- and opponents concede it
might be -- Colorado would be the only state to strip churches and
other nonprofit organizations of most of their property-tax
exemptions -- a move supporters estimate could bring in an additional
$70 million a year, although opponents challenge that figure.
Exceptions would be made for certain activities considered
socially important, such as schools and low-income housing, but
churches and charities argue that passage could have devastating
effects on them and on America's moral character.
Coloradans for Fair Property Taxation, which Murphy heads,
gathered far more than the 54,000 signatures needed to get the
referendum on the ballot. And polls show about 40 percent of state
residents already favor the change -- even before a full-scale
advertising effort begins this month.
Churches, religious organizations and nonprofit groups have
rapidly organized a counterforce and plan their own expensive media
blitz to fend off the assault. While the groups express nearly as
much confidence as Murphy about prevailing, they also acknowledge
they face a very tough fight.
The initiative likely will appeal to many voters who find some
nonprofit group they don't like among those now receiving tax breaks.
The greatest draw, though, is the backers' promise that the added
revenue for the state would greatly reduce taxes for individuals.
"I think throughout our country today, there is this strong desire
not to have to pay more taxes... and, simultaneously, to cut the use
of government dollars for social services," said Rev. Lucia Guzman,
executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches. "So in this
atmosphere, especially coming in light of the Contract with America
and some of the other changes going on at the federal level, I'm
afraid many of our citizens could see this question as a prime
opportunity, and it could well pass."
Even if the initiative fails, the detractors maintain it will
cause considerable damage just by forcing groups to divert money and
resources from charitable activities to wage a lengthy campaign for
the referendum's defeat. Plus, if the outcome is close -- and both
sides think it will be -- that could provide a powerful incentive for
future efforts in Colorado and elsewhere.
Even at this early stage, the referendum drive already is having
ripple effects: Murphy said he's been contacted by organizers in more
than 20 states, and similar attempts have begun in New York State and
Pennsylvania for future elections.
Critics contend Murphy, a colorful Colorado Springs lawyer and
radio talk-show host, is spearheading this controversial attack
because of his personal animus for the Catholic Church. …