Atheist group challenges tax breaks for clergy housing
A group of atheists and agnostics filed recently a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin that challenges the constitutionality of giving tax breaks to church ministers on housing and living expenses.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in its lawsuit, FFRF v. Geithner, claimed that the Internal Revenue Code, Section 107, violates the Constitutional provision on the separation of church and state.
Under Section 107, clergy are exempt from paying the taxes of rent or home ownership from their income, including a down payment, home maintenance, utilities and home mortgage, among others.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 13 before the U.S. District Court in Madison, said clergy tax breaks violate both the Equal Protection clause and the Establishment clause of the Constitution.
The tax exemptions are based on an amendment that was made in 1954 to the IRS code. It was authored by the late Rep. Peter Mack of Illinois, who at the time cited a need to address discrimination against clergy.
The FFRF lawsuit stated that the process of review by the IRS to determine if an application qualifies for the tax break is highly in-depth with processes that “result in ‘excessive entanglement’ between church and state contrary to the Establishment Clause.”
Pointing out that the IRS must regularly “make purely religious determinations” in order to grant the clergy exemptions, the lawsuit sought to declare it unconstitutional and asked that the IRS be restrained from permitting it.
The defendants who are named in the lawsuit are U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman. The plaintiffs are FFRF members Annie Laurie Gaylor, Emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker.
Barker, an ordained minister, used to benefit from the tax break when affiliated with a church. He left ministry in his mid-30s and complained in the lawsuit that he is no longer qualified for it.
The FFRF recently withdrew a previous lawsuit filed in 2009 that challenged tax benefits for clergy, upon a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that stated that plaintiffs can only be entitled to win court cases if they are being directly injured by it.
John Witte of Emory University, Atlanta, doubts that the case will prosper.
Witte, who heads Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, told the AP, “This is a pretty easy case. I think the Supreme Court has made it clear that tax exemption cases are for the legislature, not for the courts, to decide.”