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Atheism a Religion? Government Says Yes for Tax Purposes


“We are having to tell the government the obvious — we are not a church.”

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The leader of an atheist group sued because she didn't believe she qualified for tax exemptions afforded to clergy. When the government says she does qualify – as a minister – she got even angrier.

“We are not ministers,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, chief of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, told The Tennessean newspaper. “We are having to tell the government the obvious — we are not a church.”

The lawsuit is over the parsonage exemption for clergy, which allows ministers to claim part of their salary as a tax-free housing allowance.

Gaylor's Madison, Wisc.-based group is organized, united by faith that there is no deity, and essentially builds fellowship around those beliefs. Thus, the Department of Justice filed a brief stating that Gaylor, as the group's leader, is eligible for the exemption since atheist groups can essentially function as a religion.

That complicates the foundation's federal lawsuit, first filed in 2009, after the foundation board voted to give Gaylor and her husband Dan Barker a housing allowance of $15,000 per year. The couple then claimed they didn't qualify for the same tax exemption as clergy so the foundation sued the federal government. In August 2012, a federal judge ruled the case can move forward.

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But the Justice Department contends that since Buddhism or Taoism don’t include a belief in God and are still considered religions, atheism could qualify as well. Thus, a minister can be seen as a spiritual leader and provide services for a religious organization – and a belief in God isn't legally necessary.

“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 contested, “That’s not what we are after.”

The foundation first filed the legal challenge to the exemption in 2009 in California, but later dropped the suit due to concerns about standing. It re-filed the suit in Wisconsin in 2011.

Larry Crain, a First Amendment attorney and president of the Church Law Institute, told The Tennessean the government might be right.

“They make an interesting point,” he said. “If they apply for the exemption, they might get it.”



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