A federal district court judge has declared “unconstitutional” a portion of U.S. law that allows “a minister of the gospel” to not pay income tax on a specific portion of their compensation.
U.S. District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the so-called “parish exemption,” which allows religious ministers to avoid paying taxes on the value of their housing granted to them by their religious employers, “violates the establishment clause” of the U.S. Constitution and must be discontinued.
The law, 26 U.S. C. § 107(2), has bee on the books since 1954.
The tax exemption was estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers $2.3 billion from 2002-2007 alone, likely more in the years since.
Heralding it as a “major federal court victory,” the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which brought the lawsuit along with their co-presidents, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, offered an explanation of yesterday’s ruling.
Ministers may, for instance, use the untaxed income to purchase a home, and, in a practice known as “double dipping,” may then deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes. “The Court’s decision does not evince hostility to religion — nor should it even seem controversial,” commented Richard L. Bolton, FFRF’s attorney in the case. “The Court has simply recognized the reality that a tax free housing allowance available only to ministers is a significant benefit from the government unconstitutionally provided on the basis of religion.” Crabb wrote: “Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility. It is important to remember that the establishment clause protects the religious and nonreligious alike.” 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].” “I agree with plaintiffs that §107(2) does not have a secular purpose or effect,” wrote Crabb, adding that a reasonable observer would view it “as an endorsement of religion.” Crabb wrote that “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.” All taxpayers are burdened by taxes, Crabb noted. “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.”
One study has estimated that in total, combined religious tax exemptions cost American taxpayers $71 billion each year.
The Foundation sued Jacob Lew, Secretary of the Treasury Department, and Acting Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, Daniel Werfel.
The ruling, which you can read in full, below, notes:
It is DECLARED that 26 U.S.C. § 107(2) violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Defendants [the government] are ENJOINED from enforcing § 107(2). The injunction shall take effect at the conclusion of any appeals filed by defendants or the expiration of defendants’ deadline for filing an appeal, whichever is later.
In other words, the ruling right now is on hold until the appeals process is complete.
It is not known if the government will appeal, but expect a full-throated attack from the religious right demanding the law be re-written to comply with the Constitution.