On Wednesday the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief on behalf of Muslim, Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, and Hindu religious groups in a closely-watched case involving a 60-year-old tax provision governing churches. The provision, called the “parsonage allowance,” allows churches to provide ministers with tax-exempt housing allowances in lieu of housing them in parsonages on church property. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization, sued the IRS for implementing this provision, and in a surprise ruling in November 2013, a federal district court struck it down as unconstitutional. The case is now on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago.
“When a group of atheists tries to cajole the IRS into raising taxes on churches, it should raise some eyebrows,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “The parsonage allowance has preserved the separation of church and state for over sixty years; there’s no reason to toss it now.”
The parsonage allowance was passed in 1954, along with other exemptions for housing benefits. It ensures that ministers receive the same tax treatment as other employees who face burdens on their housing-such as hotel managers who must live in their hotels, or Peace Corps workers who must live overseas. Since at least the 13th century, houses of worship have provided ministers with a place to live on church property to ensure they are near their congregations and able to conduct their religious affairs effectively. Providing ministers with a housing allowance instead of a physical parsonage was intended to accomplish the same purpose.
“The tax code is littered with exemptions for employer-provided housing benefits,” said Goodrich. “The parsonage allowance simply ensures that ministers receive equal treatment.”
The brief was filed on behalf of a diverse group of religious organizations, including the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness; three Eastern Orthodox dioceses; and two Muslim mosques. The Becket Fund’s co-counsel on the brief is Michael Durham, an expert in tax law at Caplin & Drysdale in Washington, DC.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions-from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”