Tax Exemption for Churches Ruled Unconstitutional in Federal Court

There's really big news from Wisconsin this week. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) won a decision in the United States District Court in their case challenging a little-known law established specifically to provide government subsidies to churches.

The law, known as the parsonage exemption, comes from 1954, the depths of the Red Scare — see the addition of "under god" to the Pledge of Allegiance — and the purpose was the same: to bolster religion, and Christianity in particular, against the onslaught of godless Communism. The 1954 bill’s sponsor, Rep. Peter Mack, argued ministers should be rewarded for “carrying on such a courageous fight against this [godless and anti-religious world movement].”

The parsonage exemption allows churches to pay "ministers of the gospel" partly in salary, partly in a housing allowance, and exempts the housing allowance from income tax. FFRF observes that the parsonage exemption allows payment not only for rent or mortgage payments, but for home improvements and even swimming pools. In 2002, the value of this exemption was estimated at $2.3 billion in lost tax revenues over five years. On top of that, ministers are able to "double dip," paying their mortgage with their tax-free housing allowance and then deducting their mortgage interest and property taxes from the income tax payable on their taxable income.

The court, in a very strongly written opinion, explains why this violates the First Amendment.  "However, the significance of the benefit simply underscores the problem with the law, which is that it violates the well-established principle under the First Amendment that '[a]bsent the most unusual circumstances, one's religion ought not affect one's legal rights or duties or benefits.' Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School Disrict v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687, 715 (1994) (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment)."

The judge reminds the reader that the Establishment Clause "protects the believer and the unbeliever alike," and explains that if the First Amendment would prohibit a tax that is assessed exclusively on churches or ministers, which it does, it also prohibits a tax benefit conferred exclusively on churches.

Assuming that the parsonage exemption applies to ministers of all religions, and not just Christian "ministers of the gospel," what's so bad about it? After all, the government isn't choosing which religion to favor, right?

Here's a bit of an explanation. Take two people working for nonprofit organizations. One is a social worker, the other is a minister, and each one gets a total compensation package of $50,000. They both spend a lot of their time meeting with and counseling people who have family or emotional problems, helping to refer them to needed services, or coordinate those services with their families. The social worker gets his compensation in cash and is taxed on the whole thing, whereas the minister gets $30,000 in cash and $20,000 in a housing allowance. She is taxed only on the $30,000 salary, and the only justification for that tax benefit is that in addition to the counseling and other activities that don't look that different from what the social worker does, her job also involves preaching, leading the congregation in prayer, and maybe proselytizing.

Can you imagine any possible justification for this scenario other than to make it easier for churches to do business? I sure can't. The decision, far from demonstrating hostility to religion, is simply a way to protect everyone's religious liberty by outlawing this particular example of preferential treatment the government has provided religion for far too long.


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