The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a decision by a US District Court judge that the tax-free housing rental allowances given to clergy were unconstitutional since the heads of atheist organizations did not get a similar benefit. The lawsuit had been brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. You can read the opinion here.
The Appeals Court rejected the lower court decision on the technical grounds of standing, saying that since the co-presidents of the FFRF did not actually seek and been denied a tax exemption for the housing rental allowance they themselves received, they were not directly affected by the outcome. While the court acknowledged that when it came to Establishment Clause cases, it was hard to define a concrete injury that was the usual standard for standing, there were other ways to establish standing and that the FFRF suit did not meet those either. The court said that as a result of ruling based on standing, they were not going to rule on the actual constitutionality of the tax-exemption.
One can understand on ethical grounds why the FFRF did not ask for the exemption if they felt that such exemptions should not be given to anyone, but it undoubtedly left them vulnerable to having their case thrown out on the standing issue.
The FFRF vows to fight on but it is not clear that they will take it to the Supreme Court. The next case may arise from a group that has the trappings of a religion but society does not consider them to be a religion and that is willing to seek the same exemption for itself
Call the Satanists or the Pastafarians! Here’s your chance to have the head of your group get a tax-free housing allowance.