Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sued the government saying that a controversial tax break that allows ‘ministers of the gospel’ to clam part of their salary as a tax-free housing allowance gave undue privileges for religion that was denied to leaders of non-religious organizations, and thus violated the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause.
The legal status of the parsonage exemption has been challenged for more than a decade ever since a dispute between the IRS and the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in California.
In 2002, the IRS tried to charge Warren back taxes after he claimed a housing allowance of more than $70,000. The dispute landed in federal court and eventually Congress intervened by clarifying the rules for the housing allowance.
The allowance now is limited to either the fair market rental value of the house or the money actually spent on housing. Clergy can claim the tax break for only one house.
The government’s response was surprising. Rather than fight the suit, the government said that “since atheism can function as a religion” they may be able to offer the same tax break to atheist leaders too. This seems to be part of the current thinking in some circles to promote the idea that atheism is also like a religion.
In a brief, the Justice Department argued that leaders of an atheist group may qualify for an exemption. Buddhism or Taosim don’t include a belief in God and are considered religions, the government’s lawyers argued, so why not atheism?
The Internal Revenue Service does require, among other things, that a “minister” be seen as a spiritual leader and provide services for a religious organization. Belief in a deity is not required.
“Plaintiffs may not presume that a law’s reference to religion necessarily excludes beliefs that are specifically non-theistic in nature,” the government argued in a motion to dismiss the suit.
Gaylor has refused saying that the government is missing the point and that FFRF is not a church and its leaders are not ministers. But she sees an amusing irony in the government’s argument.
She said the parsonage allowance was first put in place in the 1920s to help ministers to fight against “godlessness.”
“They can’t now reward the Freedom From Religion Foundation to fight for godlessess,” she said.
But Gaylor may well lose the case since if she is offered the same benefit, she cannot argue that she personally has suffered any tangible harm from the tax break, usually a requirement for being able to bring a lawsuit. Then someone who is not a leader of an atheist organization may have to bring a new suit.
But it is an interesting legal question.