90.3 WBHM Birmingham — Many churches teach that the body is a temple for the spirit. As a result, faith-based fitness programs have exploded over the last two decades. No one tracks religious fitness centers, but the magazine Faith and Fitness estimates that Southern Baptist churches alone operate more than 20,000 fitness centers nationwide. But this holy union of faith and fitness is raising some questions, as WBHM’s Tanya Ott reports.

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.

“I like the church environment. When I was younger I played church league basketball. So it was a pretty easy decision to make to come here.”

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

“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.

“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.

“Personal trainers are a cross between a therapist and a bartender in that 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.