Atheist group leaders may qualify for the same tax exemption as pastors who are given a housing allowance from their church, according to court documents filed by government attorneys.
Attorneys for the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) argue in a lawsuit that the federal government has unconstitutionally showed favoritism toward "ministers of the gospel" by offering them tax benefits that are not afforded to others, including FFRF co-presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.
But, according to a brief filed by government attorneys last week, "undisputed facts regarding some of Ms. Gaylor and Mr. Barker's own employment duties provide examples of the kinds of things that an atheist could do in the course of her employment that could qualify as ministerial duties." Later in the document they state that Barker has, for example, officiated weddings, among other things.
The Department of Justice has filed a motion to have the case dismissed.
"Plaintiffs may not presume that a law's reference to religion necessarily excludes beliefs that are specifically non-theistic in nature," the government argues in its motion, according to The Tennessean.
But Gaylor told The Tennessean that she and Barker, her husband, who receive a housing allowance from their organization each year, are not seeking a tax exemption for themselves-they don't think any religious organizations should receive special treatment.
"We are not ministers," said Gaylor, according to the publication. "We are having to tell the government the obvious - we are not a church."
FFRF first filed its federal challenge to the parsonage allowance exclusion in 2009 in California, but later withdrew it due to concerns about standing, according to a press release. The group refiled the suit in 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
Eric Stanley, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Tennessean the First Amendment affords religious groups special privileges. Overregulating churches, he says, would violate their religious freedoms.
"What is really going on is that they don't like the housing allowance," he told the publication. "The foundation wants the government to be hostile to religion."
In addition to its fight over housing allowances, a district court judge recently gave FFRF permission to move forward with a separate lawsuit against the Internal Revenue Service. The atheist group, a nonprofit, accuses the IRS of unequal treatment for not enforcing its own rule against allowing churches to endorse political candidates from the pulpit.