Tax-free housing for ministers unconstitutional? Chicago Tribune has the newsy scoop

If you're like me, you may not be real familiar with the clergy housing allowance.

However, my minister friends assure me the allowance — a U.S. tax break — is a big, big deal.

Elimination of it would "significantly increase the tax burden, and hence, diminish the spendable income, of ministers everywhere," Dallas preacher Gordon Dabbs told me. "If and when it goes away, I would expect to see staff cuts at some churches and, almost certainly, some choosing to leave full-time (paid) ministry as it will no longer be financially viable for their families."

Why do I bring this up now? Because the housing allowance is facing a federal court challenge, as Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear Pashman highlighted in a meaty story earlier this week:

Chicago clergy are fighting a federal judge’s recent ruling that tax-free housing allowances for clergy violate the separation of church and state.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago will be asked to weigh in on the challenge to the so-called parsonage allowance — an Internal Revenue Service benefit that allows clergy to exclude from their tax returns the compensation earmarked for mortgage payments, rent, utility bills or maintenance costs.
The ministerial tax break has been on the books for more than 60 years and is cited by many houses of worship, particularly smaller, independent ones, as an important financial underpinning to carrying out their mission.
But it has become the latest target of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a self-proclaimed guardian of church-state separation based in Madison, Wis., that challenged the tax break, and won, in a Wisconsin court.
“This is a huge privilege and benefit for churches because tax-free dollars go further,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “They have been allowed to pay lower salaries when it’s all taxpayer subsidies. Clergy pay less, and everyone else pays more.”
Chicago-area clergy say an end to the tax-free housing allowance would drastically reduce their take-home pay, limit how close they can live to their houses of worship and impede their ministries, which often offer safety nets for the communities they serve.
“The housing allowance makes all the sense in the world,” said the Rev. Chris Butler, pastor of Chicago Embassy Church, a small Pentecostal congregation on the South Side, who plans to appeal. “If I’m looking to be God’s pastor to this community and be available to folks inside and outside the congregation, in a city like Chicago, whether I’m doing that as a pastor or an imam or the head of a nonprofit organization, it makes all the sense in the world that I live in that community. In a lot of these kinds of organizations, my church included, we’re not making the world’s biggest salary. This allowance is so important.”

It's worth noting that the same U.S. district judge — Barbara Cragg — has deemed the housing allowance unconstitutional in the past. In 2014, the 7th Circuit appeals court overturned Cragg's decision, saying the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked "standing" because the law did not affect them. 

Has something changed that might spark a different outcome this time? I don't know. The Tribune story does not delve into that question.

Caleb Borchers, a church planter in Providence, R.I., told me he's not too worried: "It seems there is one federal judge up there that seems to have this as a hobby horse. It reminds me of how most NFL fans know the name David Doty. Why? Because he is a judge that is predisposed for whatever reason to ruling in favor of the NFLPA's (National Football League Players Association's) position. So, the NFLPA runs many of their legal challenges through his court, because they know they can get a win there."

Back to the Tribune story: It's truly excellent, just as you would expect a piece written by the president of the Religion News Association to be.

Pashman not only quotes the judge's ruling and the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit, but she reflects the concerns of various religious leaders who depend on the allowance and offers expert analysis from top law professors. 

The piece is fair, impartial and thought-provoking — as the best journalism tends to be.

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