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Union of faith, fitness raises tension

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Kai Ryssdal: If you had a little too much to eat at Easter dinner, or at the Passover Seder last week, you could go to the gym to work off the extra pounds. Or you could find a way to get both body and soul in shape. Faith-based fitness programs are apparently all the rage.

The magazine Faith and Fitness say Southern Baptist churches alone operate more than 20,000 fitness centers nationwide. They don’t do it without some financial controversy, though, as Tanya Ott reports from WBHM in Birmingham, Ala.

TANYA OTT: At first glance, the fitness center at Dawson Baptist Church in a suburb of Birmingham looks like any other recreation center. There are treadmills, an aerobics studio, even two basketball courts.

On this night, Kennan Reed shoots hoops with his oldest son.

KENNAN REED: I like the church environment. I’m used to it. When I was younger I played church league basketball. So it was a pretty easy decision to make to come here.

Reed says at $35 a month for his family of six, Dawson is a deal. But critics say it’s not just a deal, it’s a steal, because church fitness centers are tax-exempt. They don’t pay federal income taxes. They’re built on land that’s often exempt from property taxes. And in many states, churches don’t pay sales tax on new fitness equipment. For-profit fitness centers, which don’t get the tax breaks, say it’s unfair competition.

TED Farnen: If a church has a business such as a fitness club with all kinds of services that are not related to their religious function, they’re in competition with other similar businesses.

That’s Ted Farnen — spokesman for the Missouri Department of Revenue. Last fall, Missouri started taxing yoga centers. Many of them protested, saying their practice has spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism and should be tax exempt. But Farnen maintains there’s a distinction.

Farnen: I think it’s important to note that when the department sent out the letters notifying people about this, we did not send these letters to Hindu temples or Buddhist temples. These were sent to businesses that were charging for their services and were not restricting it to people of a certain religion.

But back at Dawson Baptist Church, they don’t restrict fitness center memberships to church members. Fitness Director Nancey Legg says they accept people of all faiths — and even no faith. Still, she says Dawson provides a service that’s different from the for-profit gyms down the road.

NANCEY Legg: Personal trainers are a cross between a therapist and a bartender. I can’t give out drugs, and I don’t serve alcohol, but I hear lots of people’s stuff. And I love the fact that right here where I am I can stop and pray with somebody right on the spot and that’s exciting for me. I don’t know that I could do that in other places.

Across the country, courts have ruled that some religious nonprofits are directly competing with commercial health clubs. Most notably the YMCA’s in some cities have lost all or part of their tax exemption because of their fitness centers.

In Birmingham, Ala., I’m Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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