For years now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been in a legal battle to end the “parish exemption” that allows ministers to deduct the cost of rent for their church-owned houses from their taxable income. FFRF believes that this shows preferential treatment for religious leaders.
FFRF’s own board has even paid its co-presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor $15,000 each as part of their housing allowance, but because they don’t qualify as “ministers of the gospel,” the law doesn’t apply to them. That’s one of the ways they’ve tried to prove the law is illegal.
A few months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice ridiculously argued that the exemption was legal and that FFRF’s leaders were eligible for the tax breaks… because atheism, they said, was a religion:
Non-theistic beliefs, including atheism, may qualify as “religious” beliefs in various contexts because they pertain to religion and fulfill a similar role in a person’s life:
Because [FFRF] can show no facts to suggest that the IRS will apply terms like “minister” and “religious organization” as if they turn on adherence to some theistic belief or other content, this Court should not presume that the IRS would act inconsistently with the governing law regarding whether atheism a religion for purposes of an atheist’s claim…
No thanks, says Gaylor.
“We are not ministers,” she said. “We are having to tell the government the obvious — we are not a church.”
Yesterday, in a very surprising (but legally sound) decision, U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled in favor of the FFRF, writing that the “parish exemption” was indeed unconstitutional: