Atheist Student Asks Joe Biden About Tax Exemptions for Religious Clergy

Remember when President Obama gave an awful response when he was asked a question about taxpayer-funded faith-based religious discrimination?

Now, Vice President Joe Biden is joining the Crappy Answer Club.

He did a Q&A at the University of Pittsburgh yesterday and Cate Laskovics, president of the Secular Alliance group on campus, was there to ask him a question about the tax-exempt housing allowance for members of the clergy. (You can see the Secular Coalition for America’s position on the issue here.)

The video’s not great, but a transcript is below:

President of Secular Alliance: Hi, in the current tax code there exists an exemption for members of the clergy — they don’t have to pay taxes on housing allowances, and this exemption has been shown to be abused. In the current financial crisis, how can you justify forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious leaders?

Vice President Biden: Easily. In so far as there is abuse, if there is particular abuse, then they lose the exemption. But the notion that in the United States of America, under the Equal Protection clause, we are not able and it does not make no sense to see to it that whether they are Muslim clergy, or Jewish clergy, or Catholic clergy, or Protestant clergy, that they should not have the exemption. In the sense of the same thing as a charitable exemption, seems to us, seems to me, to make sense. You are right. You are right. There are clear cases of abuses that have existed. And there has been a reluctance where there have been shown to be clear cases of abuse, to in fact, to act. We should act when there is a clear case of abuse. Second point is, and this is not a justification of continuing the exemption, because I think the exemption exists on its merit, but the second point I was making is the total number of exemptions, my guess would be, of all the clergy in United States of America, based on their housing allowances, probably adds up to less than the top 1/10 of 1 percent making the tax breaks by a factor probably of five. So it is, doesn’t mean it didn’t make sense and shouldn’t be dealt with, but A. in the last part of your question, when you talk about how can you justify this in times of economic difficulty, because in relative terms it’s incredibly small relative to other exemptions. There’s a lot of others I’d rather go for first, before I go for that one.

Cate wasn’t pleased with the response:

“Too often the privileging of religion in our tax code is overlooked. In a time of economic hardship, we need to reexamine why some religious groups receive special tax exemptions,” she said. “Vice President Biden said, ‘it’s such a small amount’, but that’s not the issue. It’s about fairness. We live in a country that is supposed to have a government that stays neutral on matters of religion. That we specifically have a government that is subsidizing ministers of the gospels’ income is unfair — and I don’t think [the vice president] addressed that unfairness.”

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