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Diverse religious groups defend clergy tax breakcomment (0)

April 24, 2014

Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus may have different ideas about God, but they all agree on a tax break for clergy under attack by an atheist group that says it discriminates against the nonreligious.

Interests diverse enough to embrace both the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness filed legal briefs in recent days asking an appeals court to reverse a 2013 lower-court decision ending a 60-year-old “parsonage allowance” that allows churches to provide ministers with tax-exempt housing allowances in lieu of housing them in parsonages on church property.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief April 8 representing Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Hindu religious groups — as well as the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and International Mission Board (IMB).

The Church Alliance, a coalition of the chief executive officers of more than 30 denominational benefit programs, weighed in April 9.

Alliance Defending Freedom also filed a brief April 9 representing 624 pastors and churches.

The briefs respond to a ruling in November 2013 by a federal judge in Wisconsin that a section of the tax code granting a benefit for “ministers of the gospel” not available to everyone else favors religion over nonreligion, thus creating an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

The case is currently on appeal before the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. It started in September 2011 with a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a group based in Madison, Wis., advocating for “freethinkers” such as atheists, agnostics and skeptics since 1978.

The Obama administration says the group has no standing in the case because it doesn’t seek the benefit for itself but only wants to withhold it from others.

The Beckett Fund brief says the intent of the parsonage allowance is to ensure equal treatment for ministers and nonministers under a “convenience of the employer” doctrine first recognized by administrative rulings in 1914.

The doctrine applies to people like hotel managers who must live on premises, military officers who must live in the barracks or commercial fishermen who must live on a ship. In those cases the employer pays the cost of an employee’s housing but the IRS does not consider it income.

Becket Fund lawyers say ministers fit comfortably within the “convenience of the employer” doctrine. They are typically required to live at or near the church. They are expected to be available at all hours of the day and night.

Ministers are expected to use their homes for various church events like Bible studies, meetings, meals for new members and providing temporary lodging for guest speakers and missionaries. 

Sermons are often prepared in the home. In many small churches the minister is the primary caretaker of the church building.

Representatives of the IMB say it relies on the ability to assign housing locations to its missionaries in a way that furthers its Christian ministry “or, in secular terms, in a way that is for the convenience of IMB.”

“The starting base salary of a missionary is a little over $20,000 and the average base salary of an IMB missionary family is about $40,000,” the IMB argues. With approximately 5,000 commissioned missionaries serving in 150 countries around the world “loss of the clergy housing allowance would have a devastating financial impact.”


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