Last week came the news that, in the latest legal success for secularist advocacy groups, a federal judge ruled that clergy’s tax-exempt “housing allowance” is unconstitutional. It is difficult to know exactly what the Founders would have thought of this issue, because a) there was no federal income tax until the early 20th century and b) there were no secularist advocacy groups suing over the public role of religion in 1776. However, this seems like another example of secularist overreach, with the judge implying that the government should prefer the absence of religion over its presence. The Founders – ALL of them – also recognized the beneficent role of religious groups in American life. When you consider that about half of the major Founders supported direct state (not national) support for religion, it is no stretch to think that they would have supported this kind of indirect support for clergy and congregations.
Certain evangelicals applauded the judge’s decision, saying that the policy really is unconstitutional, and that any kind of government support for religion corrupts the faith. I admit that I could see the point here, especially if the government started attaching more strings to the tax exemption. (A congregation can already lose tax-exempt status for “political” activity, and one can imagine the government threatening the loss of tax exemption for certain “intolerant” opinions, too.) But I also would encourage the evangelical critics to be careful about jumping on board with the secularists here. Given all the evidence of the Founders’ comfort with direct support for religion, should we really accept the secularists’ notion that tax exemptions for clergy are unconstitutional?
Remember, no clergy have to accept the tax exemption, and prudence would dictate that, if at all possible, pastors treat the exemption like Social Security benefits – realistically, they may well disappear. But especially for pastors of small churches, the exemption could really be a make-or-break deal financially. So, laypeople, before you applaud the secularists’ victory – which is of course subject to appellate review – ask yourself whether you’re prepared to cover the difference if your own pastor loses the housing allowance exemption?
See also Thom Rainer, “Thoughts on the Court Ruling on the Ministers’ Housing Allowance”
Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “ERLC and Guidestone United in Protecting Pastors’ Housing Allowance”