Monday, July 22, 2019
Over the past several years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has been litigating over the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance. (The parsonage allowance, codified in section 107 of the Code, provides that "ministers of the gospel" can exclude in-kind housing or cash housing allowances from their income.)
In March, the Seventh Circuit ruled against FFRF, holding that tax-free housing allowances available exclusively to clergy didn't violate the Establishment Clause. Then, a month ago or so, FFRF announced that it wouldn't seek review by the Supreme Court.
But the battle isn't over, it turns out. Last week, the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix announced that it was going to challenge the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance.
The article doesn't provide a ton of details, but it looks to me like it's going to follow the FFRF's playbook by designating a portion of its executives' salary as a housing allowance. (Note that, contrary to its assertion, the Humanist Society wouldn't claim any kind of exemption: the exemption belongs to the minister.) Because the Humanist Society is both a nonprofit and tax-exempt, it's in a similar position to FFRF vis-à-vis the parsonage allowance.
I assume that it believes that the IRS will reject the claim, giving it standing to challenge the provision's constitutionality in court.
I've said before that I'm not completely convinced that this grants standing, the Seventh Circuit notwithstanding. Even if it does, though, the Humanist Society may face hurdles not faced by the FFRF. Specifically, according to the article, leaders of the Humanist Society are broadly recognized as clergy. By contrast, the FFRF expressly denied by religious or quasi-religious, and rejected the IRS's assertion that maybe its executives were clergy. Because the Humanist executives are recognized as clergy, it's not clear to me that they don't qualify as "ministers of the gospel" for purposes of section 107. And, if they qualify as clergy, they're going to have a hard time getting standing to challenge the allowance.
Samuel D. Brunson