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.”

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I think the question was a bit misleading. The way she words it, it sounds like she’s saying religious leaders shouldn’t have their housing tax-exempt because it gets abused, not because it’s unfair. She didn’t ask Biden why he considers the exemption fair or legally in accordance with separation of church and state. Biden answered the direct question, which was basically “How do you justify tax-exempt housing of clergy if it’s been shown to be abused?”

    • Erik

      That’s right. We need to come right out and say what we mean when we challenge an idea. The tax exemption is wrong because it means tax money is subsidizing religion, not because it is easy to abuse.
      It’s also not an effective way to fix the deficit. A candidate who wants to fix the deficit incurs a large cost (lost votes) if they go after organized religion, and only profits a little (not very much tax money to gain here) if they succeed.

      We aren’t like the people who disguise their religious hatred of homosexuals as ‘concern for the family’, we are honest about our goals.

    • http://ltt.bottle-imp.com Daniel

      Agree with this. If the complaint is that it gets abused, which is how I heard the question and how Biden seemed to answer it, then Biden gave the right answer: investigate and reprimand the abuses.

      If you don’t think religious leaders should get tax exemptions, that is an entirely different question.

    • Anonymous

      Why should they be exempt tax?

    • http://thegodlessmonster.com/ The Godless monster

      A “bit” misleading? :-)
      It was totally misleading.  Apple and oranges.

  • http://twitter.com/PeteHullah Peter Hullah

    Agree with Larry. Stupidly put question. And totally incomprehensible answer. Makes Dubbya sound intelligent.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think most people realize just how favorable the tax status of churches (and yes “church” is the IRS’s official term for churches, synagogues, etc…) is compared to other non-profits.  Clergy Housing Allowance is one, but total exemption from Form 990 reporting is the big one.  Churches (and most faith-based non-profits) never have to report anything to the IRS or the public about their finances.  Nearly all other non-governmental tax-exempt organizations do and ones with more than $50,000 in income have to do somewhat detailed reporting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/melvinwalker Mel Walker

    Taxing religion is a way of interfering with it—it handicaps the smaller religions over the larger ones.
    As long as the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the government should impose as few taxes as possible on religious organizations.
    Of course, the government should try to find and punish abuse of the tax code for everyone, including religious organizations. And I do think that making them report on their finances isn’t an onerous burden to bear.

    • Anonymous

      It’s not taxing religion.  It’s taxing a pastor on his income.  He pays income tax on his income (whether earned from the church or from other employment) just like anyone else.  The difference is that the law allows him to exclude the money that he receives as a housing allowance or the fringe benefit of living in a parsonage.  Benny Hinn lives in a $10 million parsonage.  It’s hard to see how that isn’t private inurement.

    • Anonymous

      If they only made about as much income to cover their expenses and make a living, they shouldn’t be taxed much. But profiteering should be mercilessly taxed to make it unattractive. That would help shut down all those megachurches that only exist to make their owners rich

      • Anonymous

        I disagree.  The state doesn’t care how close to the line I your income is each month.  Why should it care in the case of a pastor?

  • 59 norris

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

    Joining?  Joining?  There are plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle (be sure to name your favorite) who struggle for the title of Supreme Leader of the Crappy Answer Club.  Joe Biden is certainly in that group.

  • Alla & Greg M

    It is easy to understand why politicians never go after churches, but I could never understand how it is legally justified.  All tax exemptions for religion institutions are clear violation of the First, but no government lawyers (Supreme Court, DoJ, etc.) care.

  • Anonymous

    Having different rules for churches than for private citizens is unfair.  How is that justified?

  • Anonymous

    I agree the question could have been better. Biden was likely clueless about abuse of the deduction as anyone in his position might be over some other relatively small item of corruption.  He could better have said: “I am not aware that abuse of that deduction is wide-spread compared with other tax violations. Citizens can help by reporting any violations you are aware of, confidentially to the IRS.”

    My understanding of the real problems with the exemption are:
    1) It is a double deduction because some of it is already deductible as mortgage interest and real-estate taxes. 
    2) It only applies to clergy not other non-profits (aka non-prophets)   

    The abusers are congress, pandering to religion or avoiding holding them to standards equal to other groups.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    I suggest that everyone read the actual IRS documents pertaining to tax-exempt status for churches.  They’re not that complex:
    http://www.irs.gov/charities/churches/index.html

    One of the more irritating parts is the limited ability of the IRS to audit church finances.

  • Reginald Selkirk

     “it does not make no sense”

    Yes, it does make no sense.

  • Anonymous

    I’d only be okay with tax exemption for churches if Atheist organizations and non-profits got the same level of tax exemption.

  • JSug

    My complaint is not that the tax exemption gets abused. My complaint is that having an exemption at all puts the government in the position of deciding what is and is not a legitimate religion for tax purposes. I understand that they can’t just offer the exemption to anyone, as that would open the floodgates. But therein lies the problem. Someone has to officially decide what constitutes a valid religion, and in so doing, engage in the establishment or prohibition thereof.

  • eric s

    Anyone know how much more we taxpayers pay because religions are tax exempt and get free sanitation, police, fire and all other services as well as occupy some of the most expensive real estate in the country?  I was told by one atheist organization that I have found to be reliable otherwise  that it amounts to nearly $1 trillion per year.  Does anyone have any reliable data on this?


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