For more than six decades, pastors have been given a tax break on their housing allowances so ministers and religious leaders could live in the communities they serve, but one atheist group is now calling the exemption unconstitutional.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has been working for years to end the IRS tax exemption, which would cost churches across the U.S. nearly $1 billion in new taxes, CBN News reported.
The friction between the federal rule — known as the parsonage exemption — and the FFRF began in 2011, when the atheist organization’s executives argued “as leaders of a freethought organization they are similarly situated to clergy” and should be permitted to take advantage of the same tax loophole, which began in 1954.
— BECKET (@BecketLaw) April 20, 2018
The leaders, though, were denied. So instead, the FFRF decided to sue the IRS, now claiming the provision it originally applied for actually violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The case, Gaylor v. Mnuchin, began last week.
Now pastors are fighting back
As Christianity Today pointed out, the case hinges on whether late-night prayer calls, in-home Bible studies, and after-hours community outreach counts as part of a pastor’s job. But to the religious leaders, that’s not a question for the government to answer.
“For the majority of churches, the pastors are like me and experience at some level the same problems that we’re trying to face in the community,” Chris Butler, pastor of Embassy Church on the South Side of Chicago, said. “If you take away even a little bit, it can become a lot of trouble quickly.”
Becket, a religious liberty law firm defending the parsonage exemption, argued eliminating the tax break “would discriminate against religious groups by treating them worse than many other secular employees who receive similar tax treatment.”
“The same group of atheists claimed it was unconstitutional to put Mother Teresa on a postage stamp, so it’s no surprise they’re trying to sic the IRS on churches,” Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for Becket, said. “Treating ministers like other professionals isn’t an establishment of religion; it’s fair tax treatment.”
More than 8,000 pastors across the country signed an amicus curiae from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty advocacy organization. The petition, which called for the protection of the parsonage exemption, closed Monday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is expected to hear oral arguments on the case later this year.