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Aug 22 2013

Atheists offered a religious tax break

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.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    unbound

    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.

    Almost certainly the reason they are looking to offer the benefit. I have to admit, that is a smarter move by the administration than I would have thought they were capable of…

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yeah, that’s a corporate-tort-style settlement, and a trap. It is also be a really, really bad idea.

  3. 3
    nobonobo

    Thanks, but just say no to a tax break. It’s not that atheists don’t deserve the monetary incentive: it’s that the churches have had a free ticket. For what?

    Who are the legitimately tax-exempt atheist leaders? I think the churches will, despite a few initial brain hemorrhages, find this to be a lock on their fortunes. Oh, thanks so much for the kind and generous offer; but no thanks!

  4. 4
    sailor1031

    The real point is that these rules discriminate against all other taxpayers who are not “spiritual leaders”. Not just against Annie Laurie but against all of us, whether religious or not. The original reason for the rule is obviously an unconstitutional favoring of religion. But the rule in operation favors one class of taxpayer against all others. Don’t seem right to me – since I don’t benefit and am forced to indirectly subsidize these “spiritual leader” parasites.

  5. 5
    AsqJames

    This seems to be part of the current thinking in some circles to promote the idea that atheism is also like a religion.

    That may be one factor. I suspect there are at least two others which contribute to a reluctance to remove the “parsonage” relief out of fear: 1) Fear of being portrayed as anti-religion; and 2) Fear of being portrayed as raising taxes.

    They’ll also be thinking “slippery slope” type scenarios – if there’s no reasonable religious exception for “parsons” or “parsonages”, why should actual church buildings be exempt from property taxes? Why should tithes/donations be tax deductible? Why are churches subject to less stringent reporting standards than non-religious non-profits?

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    Shit, I’d take the tax break! :D But yes, Gaylor’s principles are exactly correct.

  7. 7
    Lassi Hippeläinen

    #6: talking about principles is not the way to work the system.

    Since every atheist has taken control of his/her spiritual matters, every atheist is a spiritual leader, and has a right to get the tax break. If that isn’t enough, step on a soapbox at the nearest street corner and tell people to follow you to spiritual freedom by ignoring imaginary beings. That should do it.

    The goverment can’t define who is a spiritual leader without defining some structure and content for the movement, and that would be establishing religion.

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