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Atheists Sue Feds Over ‘Unconstitutional’ Tax Benefits for Christian Ministers

Faith

...governmental entanglement with religion?

The atheistic Freedom From Religion Foundation is picking a new battle -- this time over the housing exemptions that Christian ministers are afforded by the federal government.

The organization, which has become known for taking strong stances to reinforce the "separation of church and state," has joined three of its officers in suing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman.

According to these non-believers, the exemption that is unique to clergy is unconstitutional as, in their view, it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Madison, Wisconsin, alleges that millions of dollars goes untaxed due to these exemptions. JSOnline has more:

The ministers' allowance isn't just for rent or mortgage payments. Payment for everything from closing costs to home furnishings to utilities and lawn maintenance qualifies for exemption.

Under current IRS law, preachers are paid in tax-free dollars. They are able to deduct mortgage interest and property tax payments and their allowances are not treated as typical taxable income. The laws governing these exemptions were passed back in 1954.

While FFRF stands firmly against the general notion of favorability that these individuals are allotted in the tax code, there are other issues at play. These individuals are also uncomfortable with the fact that the IRS must investigate and delve deeply into each individual's beliefs and religious practices to ensure they qualify for the tax exemptions.

Since applying to receive minister exemptions is complex, opponents claim that it creates "excessive entanglement" between church and state -- something foundations like Freedom From Religion refuse to tolerate. The Christian Post provides more context regarding why these exemptions are upsetting to atheists:

Many churches allot their ministers a housing allowance as part of their overall compensation package. Opponents of the monetary perk, like FFRF, claim nonbelieving directors should receive the same benefit.

What makes the housing allowance even more offensive to FFRF is that housing payments for ministers preaching the Gospel also are exempt from most states’ income tax.

A portion of the lawsuit reads:

Section 107 has the effect of fostering governmental entanglement with religion, precisely in order to limit the tax break provided by §107 to religious clergy; the IRS must make complex, intrusive and subjective inquiries into religious matters when applying §107 in order to limit its preferential scope to ministers of the gospel.

Section 107, both on its face and as administered by the defendants Geithner and Shulman, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and therefore the defendants should be enjoined from any further allowance of such tax benefits exclusively to ministers of the gospel.

This is not the first time the group has attempted to tackle this issue. The Post reports that the group voluntarily dismissed a similar lawsuit back in June based out in Sacramento, California.

John Witte, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, doesn't think the case is going to go very far.

"This is a pretty easy case," he said. "I think the Supreme Court has made it clear that tax exemption cases are for the legislature, not for the courts, to decide."

(h/t JSOnline.com)

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