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Committee approves religious tax breaks

PHOENIX -- An Arizona Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would grant tax breaks to private property owners who lease to churches, which opponents of the legislation said gives religious organizations an unfair advantage.

The Committee on Finance approved House Bill 2281 with a 5-2 vote. The bill narrowly passed in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

The bill grants property owners who lease to churches but aren't themselves religiously affiliated similar tax breaks to the ones churches get when they own property. The tax break applies only to space used for worship services.

It would affect about one half of one percent of commercial property owners, according to a spokesman from the Maricopa County Assessor's Office.

Still, that could cost the state between $300,000 and $2.1 million in fiscal year 2016.

Bill sponsor Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, says the legislation helps small churches that cannot yet afford to buy their own property but should still benefit from the tax breaks that larger religious organizations get when they own space.

Steve Wyatt, lead pastor at The Crossroads Church in Anthem, said his parish spends about $3,000 monthly on property taxes because it cannot afford to own its own space.

"Over the last several months, we've been acutely aware on how this infringes on our budget," Wyatt said.

But opponents of the bill said it gives churches an unfair advantage over other not-for-profit organizations who could also benefit from the tax cuts.

"A yes vote to me looks like a vote for religious bias," said Tory Anderson of the Secular Coalition for Arizona.

Other opponents have also said that the bill's language is so loose there's no way to ensure property owners pass their savings on to rent-paying churches.

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