Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Federal Government Files Latest Brief in Clergy Housing Challenge

The lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) challenging the clergy housing exclusion proceeded this week as the government filed a brief in the Seventh Circuit defending the constitutionality of the law and arguing that FFRF lacks legal standing to bring the case.

After reciting the history behind the longstanding clergy housing provisions now found in Section 107 of the tax code, the government’s brief summarizes the proceedings thus far in the FFRF case and explains why the Treasury and the IRS believe the Western District of Wisconsin reached the wrong conclusion in finding the clergy housing allowance exclusion of Section 107(2) unconstitutional.

First, the government argues that the district court should have dismissed FFRF’s case because the organization and its leaders lack standing required of plaintiffs to bring a challenge in federal court. While FFRF claims the clergy housing allowance provision unlawfully discriminates against leaders of non-religious groups, FFRF’s atheist co-presidents never actually tried to claim a housing allowance for themselves with the IRS. As a result, the government argues it was premature for the district court to rule that FFRF suffered any kind of personal injury sufficient to bring the lawsuit.

“Plaintiffs here have not personally asked for the § 107(2) exclusion, nor are they litigating their own tax liabilities. Because they seek only to deprive others of the exclusion, they have suffered no actual personal injury at the hands of the Government.”

Then, assuming for argument’s sake that FFRF and its leaders do have standing, the government’s brief goes on to explain why the clergy housing allowance exclusion is not unconstitutional as a permissible accommodation of religion. The government suggests that the history behind the law demonstrates it satisfies each part of the test used by courts to evaluate whether a law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“If the Court were to reach the merits, it should uphold § 107(2) as constitutional. Section 107(2) has a secular purpose and effect and avoids excessive church-state entanglement ... In striking down the law, the District Court erred. It failed to come to grips with the reasons Congress enacted § 107 in the first place. It also disregarded the fact that the housing exclusions provided to ministers are merely part of a larger Congressional design providing exclusions or deductions for certain employer-provided housing benefits for all taxpayers.”

Until the appeals process concludes and the Seventh Circuit issues a ruling, the suit will have no effect on ministers who currently receive a housing allowance from their church or other employer.

[Source: Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Lew, No. 14-1152 (7th Cir.)]