For years now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been in a legal battle to end the “Parsonage Exemption.” That’s the loophole that allows ministers to deduct the cost of rent for their church-owned houses from their taxable income. It’s a great perk and FFRF believes it shows preferential treatment by the government for religious leaders.
In order to challenge the law, FFRF’s own board paid co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor $15,000 each as part of their housing allowance… but because they didn’t qualify as “ministers of the gospel,” the law didn’t apply to them. That’s when they sued.
… the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.
… Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility.
Although it is undoubtedly true that taxes impose a burden on ministers, the same is true for all taxpayers. Defendants do not identify any reason why a requirement on ministers to pay taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for them than for the many millions of others who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses.
Crabb even laughed off the idea that Barker and Gaylor should be considered “ministers”:
Although defendants devote a substantial amount of their briefs to this argument, it is difficult to take it seriously. Under no remotely plausible interpretation of § 107 could plaintiffs Gaylor and Barker qualify as “ministers of the gospel.”
Defendants cite no persuasive evidence that either Gaylor or Barker is ordained, that they perform “sacerdotal” functions or conduct “worship” services, that anyone in the foundation considers Gaylor and Barker to be “spiritual” leaders or that the foundation is under the authority of a “church.”
A bit of history is helpful here: This whole battle has been over Internal Revenue Code section 107, which states:
In the case of a minister of the gospel, gross income does not include —
(1) the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation; or
(2) the rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.
That section was written by Congressman Peter Mack (D-IL) in 1953. As was the case with several pieces of legislation from that era, Mack introduced it to stand against those “godless Communists”:
Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and anti-religious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.
It has always been about advancing religion and keeping atheism down.
And Judge Crabb finally righted that wrong. Sure, it came nearly 60 years after the law first went into effect, but tradition alone isn’t a good reason to continue bad policy.
Pastors, no doubt, would argue that they deserve the exemption — they provide an important service for others and their salaries are (usually) pretty modest. But then again, teachers and cops and social workers could say the same thing, and they’re not getting the tax break.
Not surprisingly, there was an appeal. In September of 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments to possibly overturn Crabb’s ruling. According to people present that day, though, the focus was really on whether FFRF had standing to sue:
[Justice Department attorney Judith] Hagley… argued taxpayers do not have the right to litigate the tax liabilities of others. Since this is a tax issue that does not apply to the plaintiffs, she argued they should not even have standing for this case.
In other words, even if the pastors were getting an unfair tax break, who the hell are you people to complain about it? (Then again, if FFRF couldn’t fight this battle, could anyone?)
Sadly, the Appeals Court ruled against FFRF, overturning Crabb’s decision and leaving the Parsonage Exemption in place.
It was hardly a silver lining, but the ruling was based entirely on standing, not the merits of their argument. As the ruling went,
… the plaintiffs here are members of a group (in this case, the non-religious) that is allegedly suffering illegal discrimination. But the mere fact that discrimination is occurring is not enough to establish standing, absent being “personally denied equal treatment”… Allowing members of discriminated-against groups who have not suffered a particularized injury to bring suit would not only be unconstitutional, it would also create practical difficulties by opening the door to constitutional challenges to any tax exemption that a given individual suspects he may not be entitled to — without first giving the IRS and the Tax Court the opportunity to determine the proper construction and application of the law.
In essence, the Court ruled that if FFRF wanted to change the Parsonage Exemption, they would need to speak with a member of Congress and get a new law passed, because suing wasn’t a viable option.
But there was another way to establish standing.
FFRF would just have to apply for the tax credit themselves (something they didn’t do the first time around), get rejected, and then sue all over again. That would require calling themselves “ministers” of atheism, so to speak, but it would finally give them the foundation for a lawsuit.
And that’s precisely what they did.
In April, FFRF filed a federal lawsuit against Jacob Lew (the U.S. Treasury Secretary) and John Koskinen (IRS commissioner).
Accordingly, Barker and Gaylor sought refunds last year, as did FFRF’s president emerita, Anne Gaylor, whose retirement payout included a housing allowance. The IRS refunded the housing allowance to the married couple for the year 2013, but denied the refund request for 2012. Similarly, the IRS held up the refund request for the senior Gaylor, who subsequently died in June. Ian Gaylor, her son, is additionally named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit on behalf of the Anne Nicol Gaylor estate.
FFRF is asking the court to rule unconstitutional IRS 26 U.S.C. §107 as administered by the IRS and the Treasury Department because it provides preferential and discriminatory tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. FFRF’s complaint alleges that the section “directly benefits ministers and churches, most significantly by lowering a minister’s tax burden, while discriminating against the individual plaintiffs, who as the leaders of a nonreligious organization opposed to governmental endorsements of religion are denied the same benefit.”
It was always a long shot. FFRF even called it their “David vs. Goliath” case. But at some point, they deserve a clear answer to their question: Isn’t it illegal for the government to give religious pastors a tax break that non-religious people can’t get?
The latest update to the story comes from The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which yesterday filed a response to the lawsuit. They represent a group of clergy members who want the entire lawsuit dismissed at the District court level.
… for the Intervenors [the clergy members], losing the parsonage allowance would restrict, minute for minute, dollar for dollar, the modest resources that they have to carry out their religious missions.
Intervenors have no stand-alone claim against FFRF; their only interest is in keeping FFRF from obtaining its stated goal of forcing the IRS to stop allowing ministers and churches like them from utilizing the parsonage allowance.
… Intervenors would suffer harms that a subsequent refund could never repair: Bishop Ed and Chicago Embassy Church would have to cut back on their crucial community ministries; Holy Cross would face a risk of closure; and priests in the Diocese would be forced to obtain additional secular employment. Money cannot repair the spiritual and temporal harm that may befall their parishioners in their priests’ absence.
Their sob story is compelling, no doubt. And it would be wrong to argue, as I’m sure some atheists will be tempted to do, that this is all an exaggeration. These pastors aren’t rich and they’ve come to rely on these tax breaks.
But — and this has to be repeated — tradition alone isn’t a good reason to continue bad policy. They’ve gotten an unfair advantage for decades that they never should have received in the first place, and it’s time to level the playing field again. Just because you’re a religious leader doesn’t mean the government owes you a financial reward for it.
I just hope the judge who hears this case understands that.
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)