American Baptists defend clergy housing allowance

While the government cannot subsidize religion, nothing prohibits the state from choosing to leave the church alone, claims a brief backed by faith groups.

By Bob Allen

American Baptist Churches USA joined other faith groups in a friend-of-the-court brief filed last month urging the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the ministerial housing allowance as a constitutional accommodation of religion.

The brief filed by the Church Alliance, a coalition of the chief executive officers of more than 30 denominational benefit programs, said a federal judge erred in a November ruling that an IRS provision allowing clergy to avoid paying taxes on part of their income designated as a housing allowance violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

The religious leaders challenged Judge Barbara Crabb’s underlying assumption that any benefit to a religious organization must also be offered to secular organizations. While the U.S. Constitution does not allow government to subsidize religion, they said, nothing prohibits things like tax exemption, which honors the separation of church and state by choosing to leave religion alone.

For a number of historical reasons, they said, some churches — especially older and more hierarchical ones — tend to own parsonages and rectories while many newer or less-established churches do not. Because of that, they said, the tax law has a secular purpose of ensuring that clergy of all religious traditions are treated equally.

Other Baptist groups endorsing the brief included Converge Worldwide, formerly the Baptist General Conference, and the Board of Retirement and Insurance of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.