Atheists Want Nearly $1B Imposed in Taxes on Churches

Religious leaders tell appeals court that ending 64-year-old tax provision will devastate ministries nationwide…

(Kaylee McGhee, Liberty Headlines) An atheist group in Illinois is suing the IRS to end a longstanding tax provision that protects ministers and other religious officials that live close to the churches or communities they serve.

The “parsonage allowance” has been protected by nearly 65 years of precedent, and now a Chicago pastor is asking a federal appeals court to end a lawsuit that seeks to end this tradition, subjecting to churches in his community to almost $1 billion in taxes.

This tax exemption is rooted in a federal law established in 1954, which states that a “minister of the Gospel” does not need to pay income taxes on compensation that is designated to his or her housing bills.

But recently, this provision has been under attack from non-religious groups who claim the statute is “discriminatory.”

In October, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled the allowance was unconstitutional and that it violated the Establishment clause “because it does not have a secular purpose or effect and because a reasonable observer would view the statute as an endorsement of religion.”

The atheist group didn’t stop there, though, and is now recruiting the IRS to try and force religious organizations to pay “necessary” taxes.

Pastor Chris Butler, based in the south side of Chicago, said eliminating the “parsonage allowance” would hurt his ministry, which helps mentor at-risk youth, fight neighborhood crime, and provide for homeless in one of the city’s neediest neighborhoods.

Becket, a non-profit litigation group representing Butler, said that ending the “parsonage allowance” would be discriminatory because other secular employees receive similar tax treatment.

“The same group of atheists claimed it was unconstitutional to put Mother Teresa on a postage stamp, so it’s no surprise they’re trying to sic the IRS on churches,” Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel for Becket, said in a statement. “Treating ministers like other professionals isn’t an establishment of religion; it’s fair tax treatment.”

Butler said if he lost the housing allowance, he would be forced to move out of the neighborhood and find a second job to support his family.

Removing the tax exemption could even force smaller churches to shut down entirely, he said.

Atheists Want Nearly $1B Imposed in Taxes on Churches

Chris Butler/PHOTO: Becket

“For the majority of churches, the pastors are like me and experience at some level the same problems that we’re trying to face in the community,” Butler said in a statement. “If you take away even a little bit, it can become a lot of trouble quickly.”

Butler said the October ruling does a disservice to the religious community and to the Constitution, and that he hopes the federal appeals court will return to a true interpretation of the Establishment clause.

“This is crippling to the equal treatment of our nation’s faith leaders — but it will not stand,” he said in October. “Our job and our life’s purpose are one and the same: to serve our congregations and our communities 24/7. Living close to our faith communities is vital to our mission, and we should not face discriminatory tax penalties for doing so.”