The Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking to roll back some tax benefits for religious leaders through a lawsuit filed in a Wisconsin district court last week.
The suit lists the Internal Revenue Service and Secretary Treasury Timothy Geithner as the defendants and cites Tax Code 107, which excludes members of clergy from housing costs and gives preferential treatment to religious leaders.
Because the tax code advances religion, according to the suit, it is unconstitutional.
“[I]f ‘ministers of the gospel’ are accorded preferential tax benefits, then FFRF’s non-believing directors should get the same benefit,” a statement from the foundation said.
Dan Barker, co-president for the foundation, said he used to be a minister and was able to take advantage of the tax exclusion. Now, as a leader of a non-believing non-profit, he cannot use the same benefit.
He said the suit demonstrates the discriminatory nature of the tax exclusion. However, he said he does not want the same tax exclusion for his non-profit organization. Rather, he said closing the tax loophole would add to the revenue stream for the U.S.
In an email to The Badger Herald, U.S. Treasury spokesperson Sandra Salstrom said her department does not comment on ongoing litigation, but the tax codes allow for any members of the clergy – no matter what religion they represent – to take the tax break.
Salstrom said the tax break is not only for members of the clergy, but any employee who needs special housing for their job. She said the same exemption would be available to a university president who needs to live on campus.
Nobody in the Catholic Diocese of Madison had any knowledge of the lawsuit, said Diocese spokesperson Brent King.
However, King said the house called the rectory, where a parish’s priest lives, belongs to the church and never the priest. The community donates to the church to pay for the rectory’s up-keep, and that charitable donation is tax exempt.
University of Wisconsin law professor Allison Christians said there is a caveat to the tax code: Housing costs are exempt from taxes if the minister or priest pays for their housing themselves, which they wouldn’t be doing if they lived in housing paid for by their parish or religious community.
Tax Code 107 was “absolutely” written to benefit and protect religious leaders, Christians said, but there is a reason it still exists in the tax code although it is partial to religious communities and has been an issue raised in other parts of the country, not just Wisconsin.
“Courts don’t want to look at it,” she said.