Church and state collide in Puerto Rico

By abril 22, 2016 No Comments

By: Primera Hora Newspaper 
Translated by Maru Berríos


“I oversee everyone”.

That’s how the the Secretary of the Treasury of Puerto Rico, Juan Zaragoza, summed up his position after confirmation that the agency will oversee the churches next May.

The Secretary said yesterday that the measure is part of the pilot program that began last year with an audit process of more than 40 non-profit organizations.

The third phase of the program begins in May to include religious organizations operating on the island with broad tax exemptions.

The measure aims to detect any entity or activity that benefits from tax exemptions that don’t apply to them in detriment of the public treasury.

According Zaragoza, there are organizations that, under the cloak of non-profit organization, perform other activities that are profitable and do not pay government taxes.

“The problem is that there are churches that are family businesses where people are making a profit. You can have a church for profit, like any other, just like a shoe store. You can operate a church as a for-profit entity, but every year you should file returns with your profits and pay”, he said.
Reacting to the expressions of Zaragoza, the bishop of the Church of God Mission Board, Ricardo López Ortiz, said that although he knows that there are religious organizations operating as ”merchants of the temple”, his ministers are dedicated men and women.

“He (Zaragoza) claims that the next thing on the agenda is to investigate the churches, as some of these are family businesses. As businesses, he has to go in and get his slice. We know there are “merchants of the temple” within the church. In the very same way, there are unscrupulous politicians and public servants,” said López Ortiz in written statements.

The religious official demanded a public apology from Zaragoza to the people of Puerto Rico for his expressions, which show “recklessness and lack of common sense”.
Meanwhile, the president of the Clamor to God Church and Ministry International, Jorge Raschke, said that, if the Secretary of Treasury has evidence of a church operating for profit, he should “say it, but not generalize. You cannot instill doubt as a result of three wrongdoers,” said Raschke.

Meanwhile, Zaragoza said he is not surprised by the critics, but insisted that he has a duty to oversee everyone. “The message we’re sending here is that we have a responsibility and will oversee all groups. This is not an attempt to demonize anyone. On the contrary, we are not giving privilege to anyone, which is entirely something else. What is happening is that there are sectors who have enjoyed privileges for inaction and (when) the Department of the Treasury gets up and takes action against them, they have a normal defense reaction, saying ‘why are they pointing at me?’ The thing is I cannot favor anyone. I oversee everyone”, said the official.

He explained that they have detected organizations identified as non-profit organizations. They are questioning their status as they understand that they do not qualify as such. But not all of them will have to pay because they were making a profit. According to Zaragoza, they have also detected some organizations that, even though they have been incorporated as non-profit organizations, they did not comply with the standard procedures of the Department of the Treasury which entitle them to the tax exempt status they so have claimed.

“These organizations think that by just registering as a non-profit organization they gain (automatic) rights to tax exemptions. They get incorporated and begin operations without ever requesting tax exemptions. They have spent years not paying taxes. Now they have to make retroactive payments”, he added.

With said pilot program, the Department of the Treasury has been able to recover several hundred thousand dollars in unpaid taxes, according to the Secretary of the agency.

“We hit the jackpot because we have realized that many of these organizations are family businesses, others have never requested tax exemption… We have realized that the potential (for collection) is very high,” he said.

Shirley Rivera

Author Shirley Rivera

Shirley Rivera nació en Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Estudió Aeronáutica en la escuela de Aviación de la Universidad InterAmericana de Puerto Rico en el programa de Administración de Sistemas de Aviones. Laboró en el periódico El Nacional de Oklahoma, ejerció como reportera ancla del clima en Telemundo Oklahoma City y también trabajó como reportera de noticias para Univisión Tulsa también en el estado de Oklahoma, actualmente trabaja en programas educativos del Departamento de la Defensa de los Estados Unidos. Es presidenta y fundadora de Ateístas de Puerto Rico desde el 2014 y Directora Regional de American Atheists en Puerto Rico.

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