Organization Drops Challenge of Housing Allowance

MADISON, WI (June 19, 2019) – The Freedom from Religion Foundation, or FFRF, dropped its litigation to have the clergy housing allowance declared unconstitutional.

The organization said it made the decision based upon the current makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“After ‘counting heads,’ we concluded that any decision from the current court would put the kibosh on challenging the housing allowance for several generations.”

Under the law, a “minister of the gospel” doesn’t pay income taxes on compensation that is designated as part of a housing allowance. In 2017, the FFRF sued the government, arguing that the law discriminates against secular employees. “Minister of the gospel” has been understood to mean any clergy.

In March, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb that the housing allowance violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

“In overturning the lower court’s ruling,” Judge Michael Brennan wrote, “Any financial interaction between religion and government — like taxing a church, or exempting it from tax — entails some degree of entanglement. But only excessive entanglement violates the Establishment Clause.”

He added that the allowance also is not forbidden by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

It was widely expected that the FFRF would push for the Supreme Court to hear the case.

It was the second time that the Circuit Court had overturned a ruling by Crabb that sided with the FFRF. The organization had pressed similar litigation in 2013.

The FFRF said it may pursue the litigation again if it believes a future U.S. Supreme Court would more likely rule in their favor.

Religious organizations have contended that eliminating the housing allowance would make it impossible for many houses of worship to afford clergy.

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Stan Friedman is the news and online editor for the Covenant Companion and is grateful for the opportunity to serve in a job that combines his newspaper and pastoral ministry experience. He has been to 15 Bruce Springsteen concerts in four cities and listened to “Thunder Road” an average of at least once a day for 41 years.

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