By Bob Allen
Clergy can keep their tax-free housing allowance for now, because a group challenging its constitutionality lacks legal standing to sue, a federal appeals court ruled Nov. 13.
The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation cannot be parties in a lawsuit challenging a law that causes them no harm.
Lacking a “concrete and particularized” injury suffered “in fact,” the three-judge panel determined, the group’s complaint about an IRS rule allowing clergy to avoid paying taxes on a part of their income designated as a housing allowance is no more than a “generalized grievance” about a law they don’t particularly like.
The court struck down a November 2103 decision by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb finding that granting a benefit for “ministers of the gospel” not available to everyone else favors religion over non-religion, thus creating an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Because the plaintiffs’ did not have standing, the appellate judges said they lacked jurisdiction to consider the legality of a federal law passed in 1954 which exempts clergy from paying taxes on the amount of their income used to purchase or rent a home, including furnishings and utilities.
Don Byrd, who monitors church-state issue on the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty blog, observed that the question of whether the parsonage exemption does in fact unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of religion “will have to wait for another day, a different case.”
Numerous religious groups filed legal briefs in the case seeking to preserve the benefit. O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources, part of a coalition of denominational pension boards which filed an amicus brief in the case, called the ruling “good news for ministers.”
“Throughout the decades, there has been a recognition that the minister’s housing allowance is a vital benefit that is consistent with our Constitution,” said Hawkins, head of the Southern Baptist Convention agency tasked with offering retirement, insurance, investment management and property and casualty coverage for ministers, church workers and denominational employees. “We are thankful for the government’s defense of the housing allowance against this case and thankful to the appeals court for its decision in this matter.”
Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, husband-and-wife co-presidents of the Madison, Wis.,-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, expressed disappointment at the court’s unwillingness to confront what they called a “blatant preference for ministers and churches.”
“This privilege which religion and its leaders demand is discriminatory, and clearly signals governmental preference and subsidy for the promulgation of religion over non-religion,” said Gaylor, who founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation in a meeting around her mother’s dining room table in 1978 and worked from there to make the FFRF the largest organization of atheists, agnostics and “free-thinkers” in the United States.
Barker, a former minister and evangelist who left Christianity to become an atheist in 1984, promised to “continue to challenge this indefensible favoritism for religion in other forums until the issue cannot be circumvented.”