This is big news. The Freedom from Religion Foundation in the process of suing the federal government for its religious housing allowance. Unfortunately, the suit was challenged on the grounds that complaintants had no standing, so it was being held up before it even started.
The “good news” is that judge, in response, basically said: You have to be kidding.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order today permitting FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law.
Known as FFRF v. USA, the lawsuit was filed in September 2011. The plaintiffs receive part of their salaries designated for a housing allowance. Yet they do not qualify for the parish exemption as they are not “ministers of the gospel.”
Dan Barker, in an earlier career was as a minister of the gospel and was able to get the parish exemption. His current position, as co-president the FFRF, includes a housing allowance, but does not qualify for parish exemption. Why should one non-profit leadership position (in a church) be given a parish exemption, but another leadership position (not in a church) not? Are churches somehow different than any other non-profit? Doesn’t giving special rights to ministers of the gospel violate the 1st Amendment? It seems clear that exemptions should either extend to “non-prophet” organizations or be removed altogether.
The unique benefits to clergy date to 1954, when Congress amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their taxable income. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:
“Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.”
Clearly, the parish exemption is a McCarthy-era law that needs to be looked at very closely. If overturned will go a long way to equality in the law for the nonreligious. So, thank you, Judge Crabb, for letting this case go forward.
Note: The post has been updated for clarity.