Opinion

Taking away the parsonage allowance is religious discrimination

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(RNS) — A federal judge recently decided that clergy may no longer exclude housing expenses from their taxable income.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb on Friday (Oct. 6) handed a victory to a secular atheist group that has been challenging this favorable federal tax provision — known as the parsonage allowance — for the past six years.

The ruling breaks nearly 65 years of precedent and threatens churches across the country with nearly $1 billion in new taxes.

It will also have devastating effects on pastors like me. I am the senior pastor at Chicago Embassy Church in South Side, Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and first attended Chicago Embassy Church with my parents as a young child. When I was 17 years old, I became active in the church’s youth ministry where our church’s founder, Bishop Ed Peecher, took me under his wing.

Chris Butler, senior pastor of Chicago Embassy Church, is fighting in favor of equal treatment for religious leaders’ housing allowances. Photo by Becket

Because of Bishop Ed’s mentorship, I did not become one of the familiar statistics for African-American young men on the South Side. Rather, Bishop Ed trained me in the ministry, and I soon began preaching at the church.

At first, I split my time volunteering at the church with my career as a community organizer. I worked on then-state Sen. Barack Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. I helped lead Chicago’s “Rock the Vote” campaign and the field operation for a statewide initiative to improve public school funding in Illinois. I started my own public affairs firm that advances issues important to Chicago’s inner-city communities of color.

But when the call came for me to become the church’s senior pastor, I turned over the day-to-day leadership of my business so that I could spend more time on my demanding pastoral duties.

As lead pastor, I both minister to our congregation and lead the community outreach ministries that have such a vital impact on some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side. Those ministries are dedicated to bringing peace to areas devastated by violence, mentoring at-risk youth and providing relief to the homeless.

Pastor Chris Butler and congregants of the Chicago Embassy Church lead a prayer walk through South Side, Chicago. Photo by Becket

I use my home as an important meeting place for members and leaders of the church to congregate and to receive pastoral care. My home plays an even more central place now that our congregation can no longer afford to maintain the church building in which we had met for many years. Our congregation gathers for worship in a rented space at a nearby synagogue, but other church meetings — including leadership gatherings, Bible study, social events and spiritual counseling — often take place in my home.

The central place of my home to our church community is at the heart of the litigation over the parsonage allowance. Although the church cannot afford to pay me a full salary, I receive a very modest housing allowance, which I use to help provide a home for myself, my wife and our four children.

That housing allowance is excluded from my gross income under a federal tax provision that allows ministers to be treated on equal terms with many other secular employees who also receive housing allowances from their employers. These housing allowances receive favorable tax treatment because certain employers must have their employees live close to their place of employment in order to best fulfill their job responsibilities.

That is certainly the case for ministers like me and other religious leaders around the country who must be on call 24/7 to minister to the needs of their congregations and surrounding communities.

I was disheartened by the judge’s decision on Friday, which does not give equal treatment to our nation’s faith leaders. The additional taxes — close to $1 billion — that would be imposed on churches and religious leaders around the country would be devastating.

Any additional expenses would be a significant financial burden on Chicago Embassy Church and could threaten its mission to continue our vital community ministries. If I am forced to pay additional taxes, it could require me to spend more time with my business to cover additional costs, and leave less time for me to tend to my flock’s spiritual needs and to the needs of our community.

I joined this lawsuit to defend the parsonage allowance, so that pastors like me in small community churches across the country can continue to do their good work. My job and life’s purpose are one and the same: to serve my congregation and our community 24/7. Living close to my faith community is vital to that mission, and faith leaders across the country should not be discriminated against for doing so just because they are religious.

(Chris Butler is the senior pastor of Chicago Embassy Church in Chicago. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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  • Okay, atheists. This guy’s trying to help fix some mess and give some real pastoral care to real people, doing church out of his own family’s living room, on the South Side of Chicago.

    So tell us again why you support the patently psychotic FFRF’s attack on this man’s measly housing allowance?

  • Now the pastor can get a real job and finally contribute something real to this great nation of ours.

  • I’ll let the courts decide. If that feature isn’t available to secular non-profits then, IMO, that’s not fair and impartial and should be changed – whether it is revoked or extended to secular non-profits.

  • I get it, the pastor does good work. But so does the community organizer, the food pantry organizer, the soup kitchen coordinator, the guy who works in a nonprofit for delinquent youth. There is simply no reason that clergy should get a better deal on their taxes. None. Not for profits also pay their employees low salaries, and often can’t afford paid staff either. There is simply no argument in a secular country for clergy getting a deal. (Which incidently doesn’t extend to any other member of their staffs no matter how much good they do in the world.)

  • What’s “patently psychotic” about demanding equal treatment? No matter how you slice it, having a tax deduction that only employees of religious organizations can get is not equal.

    This is from Texas Monthly v. Bullock (1989), where the state of Texas exempted religious periodicals from sales and use taxes:
    …when, as here, government directs a subsidy exclusively to religious organizations that is not required by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and that either burdens nonbeneficiaries markedly or cannot reasonably be seen as removing a significant state-imposed deterrent to the free exercise of religion, it cannot be viewed as anything but impermissible state sponsorship of religion…
    …Because it confines itself exclusively to such religious publications, the Texas exemption lacks a secular objective that would justify its preference along with similar benefits for nonreligious publications or groups. Nevertheless, Texas is free to widen the exemption, so long as the class of exempt organizations is sufficiently expansive to be consonant with some legitimate secular purpose.

  • Actually, according to the pastor, it IS available to seculars. It’s Rev. Butler who is asking to be treated on par with the seculars.

    “That housing allowance is excluded from my gross income under a federal tax provision that allows ministers to be treated on equal terms with many other secular employees who also receive housing allowances from their employers. These housing allowances receive favorable tax treatment because certain employers must have their employees live close to their place of employment in order to best fulfill their job responsibilities.

    “That is certainly the case for ministers like me and other religious leaders around the country who must be on call 24/7 to minister to the needs of their congregations and surrounding communities.”

    I know it’s up to the courts, and where I come from, we don’t look to the government for any help anyway (and even the Bill of Rights seemingly depends on who’s actually in power in any given year!). But Rev. Butler has a point there, all the same.

  • Yeah Jim, you turncoat traitor, you better STOP defending the pastoral vocation, or Suzy gonna report you to the Atheist Internal Affairs Division!!

    THEY know exactly how to motivate you unreliable soft-soap atheist types — and it might just involve a few car batteries and jumper cables!!

  • The court ruled that the allowance is unconstitutional only because it excludes the non-religious. Unlikely a near theocratic US government is going to ever repeal this tax exemption. They would hold their nose and give atheist and secularist charities the same tax exemption. So the pastor has nothing to worry about.

    Congress could pay for the additional “atheist” housing tax-break by changing the law, limiting Olsteen and other prosperity gospel hucksters’, or televangelists’, generous mansion exemption.

  • As a Clergy who has benefitted from this rule, I think today’s ruling is correct. The notion that the church can only operate with special provisions from the government is faulty church stewardship not to mention questionable ecclesiology. It sounds like Rev. Butler is a fine pastor and there’s no questioning the value of his service. It’s simply that Christians should never expect preferential treatment.

  • I am a confirmed atheist but I try to avoid being an assh*le like some of the other atheists who post here. Our strength is our reason and logic and not emotional cheap shots.

  • Read some more and you will see that clergy enjoy benefits not accorded to secular non-profits. Either they all get it or none do.

  • Now when I dealt with money stuff in TEC I observed that priests were paid a ‘professional level’ salary (that is, a white male salary) and could designate half of that as tax-free ‘housing allowance’ for the purposes of speculating on California real estate. That tax break pumped up their income directly and by giving them an additional tax break on mortgage interest for their ‘parsonages’.

    In addition to supplying Father with his ‘professional level’ salary and tax-free housing allowance, congregations were required to kick in a heavy percentage to the Church Pension Fund for his comfy retirement—twice the percentage required for non-ordained church employees.

    That burden on congregations was, of course, unsustainable—not easy to afford a Professional Level Person with a BA and as much as a semester of Greek at seminary. So now churches are closing, buildings boarded up or re-purposed. But the retired priests are happy, in the ‘parsonages’ they now own free and clear, with their distributions from the Church Pension Fund.

  • Summary of article: “When I’m accustomed to Christian privilege, equal treatment feels like religious discrimination.”

  • Amen. On top of that the backlash over white privelege likely makes white fundamentalists feel they are under siege.

  • “Living close to my faith community is vital to that mission, and faith
    leaders across the country should not be discriminated against for doing
    so just because they are religious.”

    That’s not what the case was about. It was just the opposite.

    Here is the first line from the Opinion and Order issued by Judge Crabb: “The question in this case is whether Congress may give a subset of religious employees an income tax exemption for which no one else qualifies.”

  • There are different opinions as to what a religion really is or what a non-profit is. To be fair therefore, there should be no tax-exemptions for any group and that includes the Democratic and Republican Parties. Faith and community initiative grant monies should also be cancelled and there should also be no tax deductions for contributions made to charities and non-profits like the Center for American Progress. (John Podesta is the president of the CFAP making over $250,000/yr with eight managers/fellows averaging $200,000/yr each. Contributions made to CFAP for 2008 were in excess of $28 million.

  • As you said, it’s up to the courts (especially the 7th circuit court.) But the reality is that clergy provide one or two societal goods that seculars, by definition, cannot.

    However, as you can see, I’m not really invested in this issue, not even in Rev. Butler’s specific argument (which is a reasonable argument). I just don’t really care if the housing allowance is gone permanently.

    The federal judge, Barbara Crabb, is simply saying “You can destroy atheism and other idols a lot faster if you increase your dependence upon God, and forget about fickle government help. I am obviously wanting to help you destroy atheism, so I’m taking away your housing allowance.”

  • You remember what biochemist Michael Behe said? There’s always a difference between data and interpretation.

    We all have the same data regarding the origin and nature of humans. Darwinian evolution is simply the wrong interpretation of that data.

  • Look at the bottom photograph in the article. They are doing something for their neighborhood that is extremely important (especially in areas known for crime and poverty), that seculars cannot do.

  • You mean the man who dressed up biblical creationism and we’ll worn 17th century arguments up in jargon even courts found to be BS? Whose entire “scientific” idea is “well I can’t tell where it came from, so God did it”. That Michael Behe? 🙂

    So what peer reviewed scientific journals did he publish his famous ideas in? None whatsoever. He lives on wingnut welfare, catering to the religiously deluded. 🙂

  • Just to clear the air, Behe did get some stuff published in science journals in the 1970’s, but they were related to biochemistry (proteins and hemoglobin). He hasn’t published anything related to ID in any scientific journal.

  • That’s really deep. religious people can practice their religion and get paid for it. Atheists cannot practice their religion because they don’t have one.

  • A “prayer walk”? What was the result? Who benefited from this?

    A “think walk” would do just as much good, if not more.

  • This article is nothing but crying over a unfounded privilege which he recently lost. It was undeserved before the ruling and is also undeserved after the ruling.

  • Michael Behe, who grew up Catholic, has never been a biblical creationist.
    (Do you not read his stuff?)

  • I’ve always told you atheists that atheism was a religion, and y’all kept trying to deny it.

    Are you now conceding that atheism is a religion?

  • LMAO!!! That is why you are referencing him. His work is nothing but Biblical Creationism with a psuedoscientific gloss. Always has been. In fact Intelligent design books were proven to use word replacement with Biblical Creationist works when they were held up to public scrutiny in the Dover Case.

    You are like (to use a rather nasty example which I apologize for as I type) a Holocaust denier who comes in after the David Irving Trial. Someone trying to reargue facts which were already documented and demonstrated to the public in a rather open manner.

  • The same. There are no weasel words in it or its iterations.

    The scientifically valid framework for interpretation of biological research, especially on the subject of speciation and the history of developments of various structures and systems in living things. 🙂

  • I guess the area must be much improved by the prayer walk. What were some of the great things that came to pass as a result of this effort?

  • We can test your post pretty quickly. I often offer the Bible’s claim that all of Creation Week entailed seven literal 24-hour days, period. You know I do.

    But quote me or show me from ANY of Behe’s writings, where HE has ever said, suggested, or agreed with the Bible’s literal seven-day-creation-week claim?

  • No news media reports so far, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening as a result of the prayer walk. They have engaged a key aspect of all the South Side neighborhoods and lives that they canvassed in this prayer walk.

    What is that key aspect, you ask? The spiritual situation that’s going on there. No joke. They’re confronting it, addressing it openly, via prayer to God who has all power, and Who sees and deals with all spiritual situations.

    That’s a key part that the seculars and the taxpayer-funded social-service agencies can’t and don’t touch. The supernatural part. Seculars try to address the visible surface problems, which is good. But those brave Christians are doing a huge solution aimed at the inner, deeper problems that fuel the surface stuff.

  • Ah, yes, the spiritual and supernatural part. “They’re confronting it, addressing it, dealing with it, via prayer to God who can see and deal with the exact parameters of that spiritual situation.”

    I could do the same thing, except I’d pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and get the same “supernatural” results. That’s the problem. Your ends don’t justify the means. It’s better to face the real world in an open, honest way, rather than wishful thinking.

  • Riiight, because that is the only criteria for creationism and nothing else. /sarcasm. The only people who follow creationism are a small subset of Protestants. Everyone else and every other religion and sect is sane enough to consider cosmology myths as metaphor. Intelligent Design is merely a phony gloss on their beliefs to hide it’s religious origins and purpose

    You would not be referencing Behe if he didn’t advance your belief of literal young earth creationism.

  • “Basic pay and most other pays are generally subject to federal income tax; however, certain allowances are not taxed, such as the basic allowances for housing and subsistence. … In fact, DOD views the federal tax advantage as part of service members’ cash compensation when it compares military pay with civilian pay.May 14, 2004”

    U.S. GAO – Military Personnel: Active Duty Compensation and Its Tax …

    http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-04

  • What would Christianity be without weasel words, and the easels who use them?

    “Love one another as I have loved you.” Oh my ears and whiskers, if that isn’t one of the greatest jokes around, I’ll eat my watch.

  • You know who else has to pay taxes for housing and has a difficult job? MILLIONS of other people. The only reason christian ministers are complaining about the loss of their housing allowance is because our country has spoiled christians into thinking they deserve benefits other people don’t. There’s no reason for it. If the US had never given them this unconstitutional tax break, they would have learned to do without it from the beginning. Time to learn like the rest of us.

  • Apart from other provisions, it does not seem unreasonable that accommodation should be made for the fact that the minister uses his home to “transact” the “business” of the church. This would be no different than a host of other people who deduct expenses related to business operations in their homes.

  • This is a secular country only to the extent that the people deem it so…there remains some argument about that, the Supreme Court notwithstanding.

  • Yeah from our side to yours. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, doggone kneejerk reaction, I’ve got to get that fixed;).

  • Floydlee, I’m a little late to this, but following the thread just let me say, I know you’re as tenacious as a bulldog with a steak, but some people just don’t get it, won’t get it, can’t get it. I’m not saying you should surrender, far from it, but some days it just pays to nod sagely and leave the fight for another day. In fact, to prove our basic point, we need to be praying for those who disdain prayer; I suspect you already do, I do as well for some very specific people here. I don’t know if you or I will ever see the confirmation of our prayers, but I’m confident God will honor those who do so. However adversarial it gets here sometimes…I genuinely ache for the hardhearted among our friends here…though I confess I would be blessed out of my shoes by a heartfelt conversion from their midst.

  • Which is where he’d rather not spend his efforts, by and large. Nor does he specify if it is even a successful concern. Though I suppose that is not to the point.

  • That is nice, but what about all those Joel Osteen out there with their million dollar mansions? Should there little personages be tax exempt?

  • While this is partially true, business that are conducted from home do get tax breaks. But this does not include “take home” work. If preparing a sermon is like preparing lesson plans by teachersis the same, why don’t teachers get a parsonage allowance?

  • The secular rules for the housing allowance will still apply. If you meet them, you get the deduction.

    Being treated equally is not persecution.

  • gapaul said: …Which incidently doesn’t extend to any other member of their staffs no matter how much good they do in the world.

    That isn’t actually true. The wealthier churches are quite efficient at creating ministers and making sure their friends get a juicy tax break.

  • Religions/Churches should pay taxes just like the rest of us and should stop whining about losing there tax free housing. Pay up and shut up!

  • The “seculars” who get housing allowances have to meet certain conditions. Any pastor who meets those conditions can get a housing allowance on equal terms.

  • Trotting around flaunting their holiness in disobedience to Jesus’ clear and specific command. Who does that help?

  • Notice closely in the image of the “prayer walk” why it was named so. First, he has a harem of mostly single women around him (I’m just stating the obvious). How they can change things in this murderous asylum of a neighborhood, i’ve no idea. But my main issue is that this was a walk… if they had labeled it a jog, run, marathon, perhaps I may have seen the direct (and undebatable) health benefits to its constituents who are virtually all obese and need to read more about 40 day fasts that Jesus did. I mean if something isnt working, change tactics! The definition of insanity here folks… the black church has not done much to sway its hoods because they see through it all.
    White people already went through their coming out phase with the repugnant widespread tell-all on Catholic priests on little boys, Someday these pseudo leaders will have to reckon with what they stand for when they see the past of how these cults,hymns and songs were the mainstay to bring them here, enslave em and lynch them on sunny Sunday afternoons just a century ago.
    BTW guy needs to get off the taxpayer break and build a church or quit scrounging from the jews synagogue. Notice his followers cant even pay the church rent or utility bills. Says a lot about how viable this “mission” is.

  • Im sorry…im gonna have to step in here… Been silently following this exchange and painfully ignoring your subtle jabs. (God who has all power, deals with all spiritual situations, Seculars try to address surface problems, brave Christians….) WTF?! These words are becoming borderline inflammatory to a “secular” (whatever that means since over 4/5 of humanity dont freely ascribe to Christianity) person.
    Here’s my own quote:
    Religion has a place in humanity’s history. It will be a bookmark but not the book of humanity.

  • Not to mention the endless everlasting life with happiness and pleasure myth that was propelled to your grandfathers who didnt think to question the monarchy authority.

    Its funny we smirk at those moslems who fell for the land of paradise with harems unlimited yet do not see the folly of a similar narrative thrown to the western masses. Its just a different brand of the same ideology that seculars reject!
    I will be OK living with life as it isi versus this concocted mish mash that is so contradictory and deulsional, only a 3rd grader would find it interesting.

  • Is floydlee really being sarcastic or is this guy really for real. Sometime I have a hard time telling the two.

  • Shh Edward… you ar getting a little too close to what a lot of these spiritual posers and conartists do in day to day besides getting into peoples lives and mooching off the people who are gullible and need some sort of quick fix solution especially in large groups of women or immigrants.

  • Suzy, glad you said it. Now we are really getting to the genesis of this whole papal driven religion.
    Most christians have little or no clue how religion spread around the world and conversion occurred. They have narratives of meek missionaries going around and spreading the light to natives, savages and heathen through compassion, love BS. There is a small problem with that. Most will be uncomfortable when you tell them of the papal decree and monarchs who instituted edicts to CONVERT peoples UNDER THE GUN!. Yes most colonization used religion as a pretext. These effed up leaders under papal oversight thought they had a duty to SAVE others by destroying their faiths and belief systems and use christianity as the foundation to colonize and control native peoples. Read on the Don Dominus. Any american who reads this will see how the native indians were screwed in whole by these EDICTS that sought to spread light.

    Am not saying they were the only ones now or naive to think others didnt invade.. Muslims were doing similar rounds across middle east, eastern europe and north africa. TWO WRONGS dont make a right. Time to deal with reality and quit with the holy script BS people now see through.
    Ive said mine..thank you for listening.. now am out.

  • An interesting point…one that might be adjusted through legislation, though the terminology of the break would doubtless differ. In the end, the Law is only what the majority at any given time can command.

  • 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 obliged to call for help of the civil power, ‘tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
    – Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Richard Price. October 9, 1790.

  • .
    Butler: “That housing allowance is excluded from my gross income under a federal tax provision that allows ministers to be treated on equal terms with many other secular employees who also receive housing allowances from their employers. These housing allowances receive favorable tax treatment because certain employers must have their employees live close to their place of employment in order to best fulfill their job responsibilities.”

    This is the first I’ve heard that secular housing allowances were tax exempt.

    Know why?

    ‘Cause it’s not true. Pastor Butler is either sincerely mistaken, or flat-out lying, or as dumb as a bag of hammers.

    I presume that since he went to the trouble of authoring and publishing this article (and since RNS let him) that he did the necessary research.

    Note that Butler does not provide a link to the judge’s decision.

    https://ffrf.org/images/DOCKET087_CORRECTEDORDERreOPINIONANDORDER.pdf

    Compare his first paragraph with his headline, and note how he seems to equate taking away the tax exemption on the parsonage allowance (which happened) with taking away the parsonage allowance itself (which has not happened).

    (I do realize that it’s quite likely that the headline is not Butler’s, but the brainchild of the RNS editor — many editors have a proclivity for rewriting headlines to justify their salaries.)

    Pastor Butler’s secular counterparts do NOT receive a tax exemption on their equivalent of the parsonage allowance — that is precisely why FFRF went to court.

    26 U.S.C. § 107 — Rental value of parsonages:

    In the case of a minister of the gospel, gross income does not include—

    (1) the rental value of a home furnished to him as part of his compensation; or

    (2) the rental allowance paid to him as part of his compensation, to the extent used by him to rent or provide a home and to the extent such allowance does not exceed the fair rental value of the home, including furnishings and appurtenances such as a garage, plus the cost of utilities.

    https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/107

    (Note that the proximity of the residence to the workplace is not relevant — I don’t know why he came to obsess on that.)

    It seems that we have evidence for each of our three hypotheses, and each seems viable still.

    I’d say we need more data.

    PS: If he does do a lot of work in his home, Pastor Butler would be as eligible as anyone for a Home Office Tax Deduction. I would suggest that he pull up his socks and talk to a tax accountant or tax lawyer. I’m sure he could get the consultation comped, what with him being a minister of the gospel and all.
    .

  • I agree that there is some preferential treatment here, but preferential treatment for all kinds of things is pervasive throughout tax law and government policy at large. The government uses incentives to encourage behavior that benefits society at large. I have experienced being part of a vibrant faith community and it encouraged me to be a better person and have a positive impact in my community. This pastor is also being an important part of fixing one of the biggest challenges we face as a nation – inner city violence. I think that a tax break for someone who is willing to be a part of the solution, building the community up, is justified.

  • Whether it is fair or not, I am not qualified to say, but I still think it is sad that most of the people on this thread view Christians as having negative societal value. The tax law has favorable provisions for religious institutions because they have traditionally provided a lot of societal value, from being a safety net for the poor to being a center of the community. Hopefully the church can come back to these roots to change public perceptions of the church

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