- (Photo: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
A federal judge in Wisconsin has struck down a law that exempts clergy members from paying income taxes on housing allowance, declaring it unconstitutional in a case filed by Freedom From Religion Foundation. Family Research Council called the judgment "supreme arrogance."
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's decision on Friday affects thousands of pastors who can currently pay house rent or home ownership costs, including even mortgage payments and property taxes, with their untaxed income.
In her ruling, the judge 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," as quoted by the Wisconsin State Journal.
Referring to a 2002 statement by then Minnesota Rep. Jim Ramstad saying the exemption would save clergy members $2.3 billion in taxes in five years, Crabb said the extent of the benefit reveals flaws in the law.
The decision in the lawsuit filed by the atheist group against U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and acting IRS commissioner Daniel Werfel is a "really big deal," The Associated Press quoted Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Madison-based group FFRF, as saying. "A church currently could pay a minister $50,000 but designate $20,000 of it a housing allowance so that only $30,000 would be taxed as salary."
The judge said the defendants could not justify how paying taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for clergy than the many millions of others who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said the judgment is against the Constitution.
"We have seen many courts over the years attempt to banish God in various ways from the public square, but this case in particular reveals a level of supreme arrogance," Perkins said in a statement. "Once again, Judge Crabb has neglected to consult the Constitution that she was sworn to uphold."
Society has long provided this tax housing allowance to clergy because of the tremendous benefit that churches in turn give to society, Perkins explained. "Clergy help carry the burden of many social ills that would otherwise become the burden of taxpayers and the federal government."
However, Anthony Bradley, associate professor of theology at The King's College in New York City and a research fellow at the Acton Institute, said he is "highly in favor of" striking this down in the 1954 legislation. "I know lots of guys pulling six figures as pastors who benefit hugely from this, then, there are the rest of us in Christian education," commented Bradley on his Facebook page.
Perkins pointed out that the same judge had struck down the National Day of Prayer as unconstitutional.
"She had ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional and the Seventh Circuit later ruled that this very same plaintiff, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, had not suffered an injury due to the law and so lacked standing to sue in the first place," Perkins said. "Evidently, Judge Crabb needs to reread what the federal appeals court did the last time she issued this kind of a ruling."
FRC says it will continue to monitor the case closely on behalf of the nearly 25,000 clergy that comprise their pastors' network.
Ken Klukowski, FRC's director of the Center for Religious Liberty, hopes the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago would "promptly reverse" the decision. "This is a decision that flies in the face of controlling precedent," he said.