Clergy housing tax-exemption challenge fails

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.


  1. dogfightwithdogma says

    The legal concept of standing is one that I find extremely annoying. I think it creates an unreasonable barrier to challenging actions that potentially infringe upon the Constitution. Standing wasn’t even a part of our legal framework until 1922 when the Supreme Court created it in their Fairchild v. Hughes decision. We’re stuck with it. But I personally wish we were not.

  2. says

    it creates an unreasonable barrier to challenging actions that potentially infringe upon the Constitution

    Yeah, but it sure is convenient for the wealthy and powerful.

  3. Ed says

    The only time I might (maybe) be sympathetic to tax-free housing for clergy would be if they lived in a small dwelling that was part of the place of worship itself or on its grounds. Preferably an apartment rather than a detached house.

    Taxes get added for unnecessary living space. If the cleric is single (by choice or required celibacy) only kitchen, sitting room and one bedroom and bathroom or else get taxed. If married and childless, same thing. If one child, an extra bedroom. For more children, one bedroom for every two kids and one extra bathroom.

  4. Mano Singham says


    Yes, they would if they had applied for the exemption and been denied. Since in this case they had not applied for it, it was harder to show that they had suffered an injury.

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