Monday, October 9, 2017

District Court Calls Minister's Housing Allowance Unconstitutional

A ruling has just been issued by a Wisconsin federal district court calling the minister’s housing allowance unconstitutional.

This decision does not come as a surprise as the same judge issued a similar ruling back in 2013 before the case was dismissed by a higher appeals court on the technical grounds of standing. Judge Barbara Crabb writes in her latest ruling, “I adhere to my earlier conclusion that [the minister’s housing exclusion] violates 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.”

Fast forward several years, and the parties and issues are very similar except that the plaintiff bringing the case (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has tried adjusting its approach to overcome the standing hurdle.

What is the immediate impact for ministers and churches?

At this point, the court has issued its ruling simply declaring the housing allowance is unconstitutional but without any damages or other remedies awarded, so there is no immediate effect on ministers who are eligible for the housing exclusion under current law.

Additionally, it is likely the district court’s decision will be appealed, and a higher court will have to determine whether FFRF has standing on the facts of this case, and if there is standing, whether it agrees with the lower court that the housing allowance is unconstitutional.

[Source: Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Mnuchin, No. 16-CV-215 (W.D. Wis. Oct. 6, 2017)]

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