The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with plaintiffs Annie Laurie Gaylor, Anne Nicol Gaylor and Dan Barker, filed a nationally significant federal lawsuit in Madison, Wis., on Sept. 13, 2011, challenging tax benefits for “ministers of the gospel,” commonly known as “the parsonage exemption." FFRF seeks a declaration that the federal statute creating the parish exemption, as administered by the IRS and the Treasury Department, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by providing preferential tax benefits to ministers of the gospel. FFRF requests the court to enjoin the allowance or grant of tax benefits exclusively for ministers of the gospel under the litigated act. The individually named plaintiffs, either currently directors or retired directors of FFRF, currently receive a housing allowance designated by FFRF's governing body, yet do not qualify for the housing allowance as they are promoting non-belief, rather than religion. In fact, Dan Barker is an ordained minister who previously was able to utilize the housing allowance and exclude such payments from his taxable income.
Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, also may deduct their mortgage interest and property tax payments. Under federal law, allowances paid to “ministers of the gospel” are not treated as taxable income. “Ministers of the gospel” may uniquely claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others. The exemptions permit clergy to deduct from their taxable income housing allowances furnished as part of compensation. The unique benefits to clergy date to 1954, when Congress amended the tax code to permit all clergy to exempt their housing costs from their incomes taxes. U.S. Rep. Peter Mack, author of the amendment, declared:
"Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and antireligious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this foe. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare."
“The income taxation of ministers of the gospel under the general rules that apply to other individuals would not interfere with the religious mission of churches or other organizations or the ministers themselves,” the legal complaint maintains. The statutes are not an accommodation of religion, therefore, but a subsidy.
Defendants are Timothy Geithner, U.S. Treasury secretary; Douglas Shulman, Internal Revenue Service commissioner; who are all providing tax benefits only to “ministers of the gospel,” rather than to a broad class of taxpayers. FFRF withdrew its previous case, filed in October 2009 in federal court in Sacramento with 21 federal taxpaying FFRF-dues paying plaintiffs, following the Supreme Court's 2011 decision on taxpayer standing in the Winn Arizona tax credit case. FFRF has refiled with plaintiffs who have been directly injured by the preferential law.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Western District of Wisconsin, issued a strong 20-page opinion and order on Aug. 29, 2012, permitting FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor and President Emerita Anne Gaylor to pursue their challenge of the 1954 law. The plaintiffs receive part of their salaries designated for a housing allowance. Yet they do not qualify for the parish exemption as they are not "ministers of the gospel.” The government contested their standing to sue, but Crabb wrote that “there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as ‘ministers of the gospel,’ so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption.”
Legal Complaint (Sept. 13, 2011)
FFRF won the case in Federal Court on November 21, 2013.