The Freedom from Religion Foundation is at it again. This time, their complaint is about the clergy housing allowance tax benefit, which they think is unconstitutional because…they don’t get it. According to the Tennessean:
A nationwide atheist group is asking religious leaders to take Jesus’ advice and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — especially when it comes to taking the federal tax break on their housing.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation says the housing exemption gives churches an unfair advantage because they can compensate their leaders with tax-free housing. Other nonprofits, such as the foundation, can’t do that. So it’s suing the federal government to outlaw the housing allowance.
“We think the law is rotten at the core,” said co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It is not constitutional, it is not fair, and it is not necessary.”
Presumably, if Gaylor could get that break, she’d think it peachy. But heaven forbid (pun intended) that the tax system should give clergy any break of any kind. The thing is that there are also tax disadvantages to being clergy:
Ken Behr, a pastor at LifeChurch.tv in Hendersonville, takes the housing allowance, which he says offsets penalties he gets for being a minister.
Behr, like most ministers, is not an employee of his church. He is considered self-employed, so he pays twice as much for Social Security as most workers, and he pays the self-employment tax.
Gaylor is not, of course, calling on the Social Security penalty to be eliminated.
Here’s the deal: when it comes to churches and their pastors, the government is in a difficult position. The First Amendment is universally taken to mean that government entanglement with, much less destructive pressure on, religion should be kept to a minimum. The question then is how to do this. The most important reason why churches are exempt from taxes is that the power to tax is the power to destroy, so churches get the exemption so that the state can’t, whenever it finds religion an annoyance, use its power to tax to eliminate a nuisance. The reason clergy are considered self-employed for Social Security purposes (which is plainly a legal fiction) is so that the state doesn’t wind up taxing churches, which it obviously would if it made them pay the employer’s portion of an employee’s tax.
If my taxes through the years are any indication, clergy typically wind up paying a good deal more in self-employment taxes than they get knocked off their income tax because of the housing allowance deduction. (That’s especially the case for those living in manses or parsonages–they can take off utilities and furnishings, but that’s dwarfed by what those who own their homes can take off in mortgage payments.) Most clergy, I suspect, if you offered them a 50% reduction in the self-employment tax in exchange for the housing allowance would gladly take it.
But that isn’t what the FFRF is talking about. They don’t care if clergy are penalized by virtue of their vocation, as long as they don’t receive any sort of benefit to help offset the penalty. For the FFRF, what matters is not constitutional questions, but attacking religion any way they can.
One final note. Every time I see Matthew 22:21 (“render to Caesar”) quoted with regard to clergy taxes, I want to scream. Honest clergy do render to Caesar. They pay the taxes that are required of them, just like everyone else. If the laws get changed, they pay according to the new rules, just like everyone else. To suggest that just because they are clergy they have some kind of obligation to pay above and beyond what the government requires of them is not only contrary to what Jesus said. It’s a manifestation of an anti-religious animus that is contrary to what a nation that values freedom of religion is supposed to stand for.
(Via the Layman Online.)