Federal Judge Strips Religious Tax Exemption From Preachers, Declares It Unconstitutional

Tax exemptions for preachers ruled unconstitutional by federal court.

This victory in federal court against tax exemptions for preachers is a major one, but it’s still just a small step toward what must be done. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Prepare for Christian right-wing rage. On Friday, a federal judge struck down a 1954 law that provided a hefty tax exemption to Christian pastors.

A federal court has declared a tax exemption for preachers unconstitutional.

In the court’s opinion, Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin wrote that 26 U.S. C. § 107(2) “violates the establishment clause… because the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.”

Within the 43 page decision, the court cited that the tax exemption costs taxpayers billions. At least $2.3 billion has been stashed away by supposed “men of god” over a five year period between 2002 and 2007 alone.

According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the organization that brought the suit, the tax exemption allowed “ministers of the gospel” to exclude a housing allowance from their income.

“Ministers may, for instance, use the untaxed income to purchase a home, and, in a practice known as “double dipping,” may then deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes,” FFRF said in a news release  announcing the court’s decision.

Furthermore FFRF noted what pastors often use the tax exemption for.

“Clergy are permitted to use the housing allowance not just for rent or mortgage, but for home improvements including swimming pools, maintenance and repairs,” FFRF states. “They may exempt from taxable income up to the fair market rental value of their home, particularly benefiting well-heeled pastors. The benefit extends to churches, which can pay clergy less, as tax-free salaries go further.”

Such tax exemptions rob taxpayers of billions of dollars.

In short, unlike most Americans who struggle to even keep their homes, pastors get a free ride from churches, which is then exempted from taxation so that they can use the money to make their own more extravagant. Basically, pastors are robbing taxpayers to improve their own lifestyles.

In the decades since 1954, this particular exemption has kept billions upon billions of dollars in revenues from the federal government. Such money could have paid for education, social programs that help the poor, health care, housing and other programs that improve the lives of Americans as a whole. Sadly, pastors have simply been allowed to pocket the extra cash for themselves all these years, even as many church leaders decry things such as the national debt today. That’s another thing the money could have been applied to all this time.

The tax exemption was passed by Congress in the 1950s along with other violations of the Constitution.

The exemption was sponsored by Congressman Peter Mack, who urged pastors be compensated by the US government for “carrying on such a courageous fight against this [godless and anti-religious world movement].” You would think words such as these would have come out of the mouth of a Republican, but oddly enough, Mack was a Democrat.

Of course, the fact that Mack was a Democrat is irrelevant. The point is that the law he supported is totally unconstitutional. As Crabb states in the ruling, “Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility. It is important to remember that the establishment clause protects the religious and nonreligious alike.”

Such an exemption is completely unfair in our society. It bestows a governmental gift to Christian pastors for waging a crusade against atheists and non-believers. Why should pastors be given such treatment by the federal government when the rest of the American people do not? This is clearly a case of government respecting an establishment of religion, which is forbidden by the Constitution.
Of course, the exemption was passed in 1954 at a time when violation of the establishment clause ran rampant. In the same year, Congress mandated that “In God We Trust” be engraved on our money. Later that decade, the phrase became the national motto. The 1950s also saw the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. All clearly refer to the Christian deity, and are all therefore unconstitutional as well.

This victory in federal court is a major one, but it’s still just a small step toward what must be done.

The ruling on tax exemptions is a major victory but just a small step toward eliminating the billions of dollars churches still receive.

But the “parsonage exemption” that was struck down on Friday is merely a fraction of tens of billions of dollars that churches rake in off the backs of taxpayers. According to the Washington Post, religious tax exemptions cost Americans over $82 billion every year. Religious groups also own property exceeding the amount of $600 billion. Imagine if no religion received such tax exemptions. $82 billion would be saved every year and could go toward things like health care, education, infrastructure, and paying off the debt. Or the money could simply be returned to the pockets of the citizens of this county. At a time when Americans are struggling to get by, I’m sure they’d welcome the relief such money would provide.

No religion in this nation should get a tax-free ride in this nation. Not all taxpayers share the same religion. Therefore, their tax dollars shouldn’t go to a church or religion they do not support. In other words, religious organizations should rely on their congregations for donations, not the federal government that is supposed to represent everyone regardless of what their beliefs may be. As Benjamin Franklin once said,

“When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support
it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it’s a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
~Benjamin Franklin, letter to Richard Price, October 9, 1780

Instead of taking care of religious organizations with taxpayer money, the federal government should use those revenues to care for the people who paid them in the first place. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the constitutional thing to do. This victory in federal court is a major one, but it’s still just a small step toward what must be done.