Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Save the clergy parsonage allowance!

The U.S. Constitution with an american flag.

(RNS) — The president of my congregation shot me an email yesterday. “Rabbi, a reminder: we need your parsonage allowance for the board meeting on Thursday evening.”

So, I sat down with a pad of paper and a calculator.

Let’s see: mortgage, real estate taxes, utilities, landscaping, house repairs, insurance….. add them together, and that’s a clergy parsonage allowance

Very simple: a member of the clergy, who performs sacred duties for a religious organization, can exclude all housing expenses from taxable income.

But, now, clergy of all theological stripes are gulping in fear. The other day, a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin declared that the longstanding clergy housing allowance violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The plaintiff in this matter is the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group.

Which raises the question: is it “right” for members of the clergy to be able to exclude their housing expenses from income for tax purposes? (By the way: they are not alone in this regard; members of the military can take advantage of a similar deduction). Isn’t this a violation of the idea of the separation of church and state?

Let me respond – not as an accountant, nor as an attorney (and I play neither on television), but as a rabbi who knows something about America and its complex relationship to religion.

First, despite the well-publicized salaries and life styles of rich and famous mega-church clergy people, this is hardly the norm for most members of the clergy.

There is a reason why the phrase “poor as a church mouse” exists. It was the original reason for this ruling — to protect ill-compensated ministers.

Many clergy members couldn’t afford to do what they do without the parsonage allowance.

And, neither could their congregations afford to keep them as pastors.

Second, once we start messing around with parsonage allowance, we will be travelling down a very slippery slope. It could lead to the removal of tax-free status for synagogues, churches, and mosques. It will make it impossible for many of them to function.

Third, this allowance does not seem to constitute a violation of the separation of church and state.

As I understand it, separation of church and state means that the government cannot establish a state religion. This was clearly a reaction to the European situation, in which every country has a default religious identity.

Moreover, the separation of church and state means that while religion will not interfere with the workings of government, neither would government interfere with the workings of religious institutions – unless there were clear and compelling reasons to do so.

And, finally, the separation of church and state does not mean the separation of religion and society.

This, it seems to me, is the overarching philosophical architecture that brings us personage allowance.

Here is what it is saying, in essence. Religion is good for society. Clergy members doing their sacred work is good for society.

America is among the most religious of all Western nations. Church attendance in America is higher than that of almost any other Western country.

More than 90 per cent of Americans believe that there is a God – whatever He or She or They are called. Belief in God is profoundly American – so American, that an avowed atheist would have serious trouble getting elected to a major political office.

So, too, you cannot separate religion from American life and from American history. There could have been no reforms in American history had it not been for religious influences. This was true of the abolitionist movement, and the civil rights movement, and the anti-nuclear movement, and the anti-Viet Nam movement.

It is also true of the various protest movements that are popping up all over this country, like dandelions on a lawn.

You simply cannot discount the role of faith in American public life. At the dawn of the Enlightenment, the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn put it this way: The role of religion is comfort, and instruction, and admonition. That is how religion has functioned in America.

You are free to say: yes, religion has been important in America. But, so, too: education, music, art, social work – and we don’t give tax incentives to those professions – many of whose practitioners earn far less than clergy. And you would not be wrong.

You are likewise free to say: Jeff, as a rabbi, you have a personal stake in this conversation, don’t you? And you would not be wrong. I never took any kind of oath to totally foreswear self interest, and the interests of my religious community.

Nevertheless, parsonage — as a privileged status for clergy — comes out of an American way of viewing religion. Religion, despite its many design flaws and bad practitioners, is a societal good. That is why I hope that parsonage, and the various tax breaks for religion, remains an American reality.

Without it, our religious institutions would be far weaker.

And so would American life, in general.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

57 Comments

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  • If the author gets his way and only religious congregations can provide this parsonage allowance to ministers for a tax break…what will quickly happen is that everybody from the Satanic Temple to Wiccans, Druids, the Spaghetti Monster people or other non-profits will quickly make their leaders “ministers” in the legal sense…and they will get the parsonage break in any case.

    The author suggests many churches or temples could not survive without this allowance and its tax advantage…a pretty damning indictment of believers if a tax-break is the only thing keeping your congregation intact. Speaks volumes about religion in America today.

  • “It was the original reason for this ruling — to protect ill-compensated ministers.” – It wasn’t made law until the 1950’s. And the reason was to fight “Godless Communism”.

  • I don’t always agree with Rabbi Salkin, but I always find his commentary compelling. Naturally, his is not the final word on the subject (I see this as a potential Supreme Court case), but I think his argument is well founded both in legal precedent and in U.S. history. But as Damien Priestly points out, “…a pretty damning indictment of believers if a tax break is the only thing keeping your congregation intact;” However, I am quite confident that even with the reversal of present policy, the bulk of congregations will survive, even if that means marginally sized fellowships will have to band together to do so.

  • “”When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does
    not support itself, and God does not care to support it, so that its professors
    are obliged to call for the help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend,
    of its being a bad one.”
    ~Benjamin Franklin~

  • As I understand it, separation of church and state means that the government cannot establish a state religion.

    It means much more than just that. In this case, the government can’t carve out an exemption that is only available to religious groups, even if similar non-religious groups would otherwise qualify.

    Aside from that, since Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code as written literally specifies that the exemption is for “ministers of the gospel”, I wonder if Rabbi Salkin would object if the IRS ruled that this exemption is only available to Christians — after all, doing so doesn’t establish a state religion, either, so it’s constitutional, right?

  • I apologise if I misrepresent the writer’s arguments – it is how they came across to me.

    Argument 1 – some clergy are poor – I don’t disagree. Some teachers are poor, some fishermen are poor, some nurses are poor – they all work in ways which benefit society but they don’t deserve to be treated equally with ministers of religion (whose benefits may be real but not necessarily connected to religion).

    Argument 2 – The slippery slope – again I don’t disagree. But why should the business of religion be protected from economic reality when most other businesses aren’t? Why should the fact that a business is insufficiently supported by customers to maintain it’s existence cause favourable financial accommodations for religion but not for other strugglers? Try changing clergy to nurses or teachers and see if the argument changes.

    Argument 3 – “separation of church and state means that the government cannot establish a state religion” Whilst not claiming to be an expert I understand that the courts have interpreted the separation to mean that, in practice, the state may not favour any one religion over another – nor favour religion over non-religion (or vice-versa). (The situation is regularly confused by claims that atheism is a religion – it isn’t but then non-religion and atheism are not synonymous).
    The allowances and tax-free status are blatantly limited to religion rather than non-religion as this judge has realised.
    If religious groups are important to their deity but not financially viable surely it is up to their god to provide (ask-and-ye-shall-receive – give-us-this-day-our-daily-bread etc.). I’ve never understood why a deity who can make the universe in six days can’t slip a gold bar into the church safe.

    Argument 4 – “Here is what it is saying, in essence. Religion is good for society. Clergy members doing their sacred work is good for society.”
    Firstly – is religion good for society? – one can argue that it brings some short-term benefits at the personal level (though they are not necessarily exclusive to religion) but a strong argument can be made that religion’s influence is always, on balance, harmful.
    Secondly – Clergy members work is good for society – sometimes it is – sometimes it is disastrous but so what? the same is surely true of doctors, teachers, engineers, road-sweepers etc. etc. etc.. If you don’t provide the same benefits you discriminate and that is contrary, as I understand it, to the establishment clause as it currently operates.

    No-one looking at recent events could discount the importance of religion in American history, but any claim that it has historically been, on balance, a positive influence has to answer the question as to whether recent events have swung the pendulum, irrespective of where it was, firmly to the dark side.

    “Religion, despite its many design flaws and bad practitioners, is a societal good” – This statement is not supported by evidence, is open to question and irrelevant to the matter at hand which is the constitutionally unlawful discrimination in favour, only, of those deemed to meet criteria dependant upon religious belief.

  • The government considers Secular Humanism as an official religion and its members are mostly atheists so their officials would also be threatened with a housing allowance loss also. This probably would not be what this atheist group that is trying to do away with the allowance would desire.

  • I am hugely disappointed at RNS for running this column. “As a rabbi,” doesn’t cut it if you are going to comment on American tax law, the Constitution, and the matter of church-state relations.

    Americans believe religion is a societal good, the rabbi tells us. And yet the same argument could be made for charities for children. And as noted, their employees don’t receive a tax break. No other employees of not-for-profits get this break. Not the head of your local food bank, not the head of the foster care agency, not any other head of a charitable enterprise. For that matter, the clergy person receives this — but not the office staff, or the person running the children’s ministry program or the feeding program in your church. Just the preacher. I do not understand the Constitution as making a strong case for cutting a deal for clergy

    If you want to argue that this makes sense because America is a “religious country,” as opposed to a just one, or a kind one — okay, then when Millennials are in charge and we are no longer a hugely “religious” country, will it then be time to remove this? Are we really going to say that this law makes sense because a majority of people believe in God? Then people who do, and people who don’t — are equally suffering from the lack of nearly a billion dollars in federal income tax. That’s into everyone’s national debt and infrastructure need. How does that make sense. I oppose the law, not because I oppose religion, but because I believe the sense of entitlement religion assumes for itself is costing it dearly.

    About that “slippery slope” business, the rabbi might want to read up on law governing not-for-profits. Your church, like your garden club, isn’t about to start paying taxes. But your clergyperson might pay taxes on their housing, someday.

  • Damien Priestly: I like what Benjamin Franklin said about this…

    “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

  • You know, I don’t think that because you do good you’ll be in fine shape. Martin Luther King was chronically in debt. I think there are better arguments against giving religious organizations anything other than what is given to other not-for-profits, that’s all.

  • Maybe. Or maybe we would call good a tiny congregation in Flint or the Alaskan tundra, which struggles to pay its bills. I don’t think that means clergy should get a tax break, I just don’t think Franklin was imagining the many versions of religious life that might come to pass in the United States.

  • gapaul: I don’t think Franklin imagined a parsonage exemption would be passed in opposition to a Soviet superpower. In a way this works out to taxpayers supporting clergy via government tax payments.

  • Great quote! I lived in the Philadelphia area for most of my childhood…Ben Franklin was my revolutionary hero more than Washington or Jefferson…great man…he would think we have lost our way now.

    Funny how the religion issue in America never changes…even in Franklin’s day — they were debating the same thing we debate now.

  • Actually, you might not like the Boy Scouts or the Garden Club or Planned Parenthood and various think tanks– but they are not for profits, and not taxed either. Including the FFRF. I see a different reasoning for this matter (clergy housing) than the whole matter of tax exemptions for all not for profits.

  • gapaul: If I’m remembering correctly, the parsonage exemption is above and beyond the tax exempt status of the church. Basically, the church doesn’t withhold taxes from clergy when paying them, then clergy can claim this tax deduction on their personal taxes related to taxes that weren’t withheld. So they end up getting taxes returned to them that they never had withheld.

    So if I paid no taxes because I didn’t earn any money all year, I can’t then claim a parsonage return of taxes that I didn’t pay in throughout the year. I paid in zero, and I can’t have any taxes returned because there’s nothing to return to me. A pastor can basically have taxes paid back past zero.

  • Like I said, a link would be helpful, rather than just your memory. And I find your description confusing
    A clergy person is like any self-employed person. So yes, filing their own taxes, quarterly, most likely. A minister can claim a housing allowance– the portion of their salary being spent on their housing, which is then tax exempt. And they need to be able to prove that. They don’t “make” money from the government if they spend more on housing than the salary they make. It is simply a portion of their salary not subject to tax.

  • gapaul: A self-employed person doesn’t have a parsonage exemption and their business wouldn’t be tax exempt like a church.

    Again, a church doesn’t withhold taxes for clergy. Then clergy can claim money back from the government that wasn’t withheld.

    So if I have $5,000 withheld, I can get no more than $5,000 back from the government at the end of the year. Through this exemption there’s a way that clergy can request money back from the government that a religious institution didn’t pay.

  • So the argument here is special pleading by Rabbi Salkin that clergy deserve this parsonage allowance because they (in his opinion) contribute more to our country than the rest of us. He ignores the fact that our secular Constitution applies the law (as interpreted by our lawmakers and the court system) equally to every American citizen. The First Amendment provides the right of every citizen to follow the supernatural belief of their choice. The government won’t stop you from participating in the religion of your choice as long as you don’t violate the rights of other citizens or use your religious belief as justification for illegal activity. The Separation Between Church and State means that the government remains neutral in religious matters. It doesn’t pick winners and losers allowing religion to compete in the free market of ideas. If your religious preference can’t survive in the free market, don’t go running to the government demanding a handout to support your belief system. If your religion can’t survive without government support via hundreds of millions in tax breaks, you should question the veracity of your worldview. Surely if your deity (or deities) won’t support your work, why do you expect taxpayers to foot the bill? Our Constitution has provided religious freedom that created a fertile environment that allowed a plethora of religious beliefs to flourish because the government has (usually) remained neutral. James Madison wrote that government involvement with the church “implies either that the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth; or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” You can read more at “Constitutional Myth #4: The Constitution Doesn’t Separate Church and State,”
    https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/constitutional-myth-4-the-constitution-doesnt-separate-church-and-state/240481/

  • “Religion and Government are certainly very different Things, instituted for different Ends; the design of one being to promote our temporal Happiness; the design of the other to procure the Favour of God, and thereby the Salvation of our Souls. While these are kept distinct and apart, the Peace and welfare of Society is preserved, and the Ends of both are answered. By mixing them together, feuds, animosities and persecutions have been raised, which have deluged the World in Blood, and disgraced human Nature.” –
    John Dickinson, one of the Founding Fathers, wrote the above statement in 1768 on the advent of the American Revolution.

    The history of these exemptions provide us with the context of why they were promoted. “Although some religious tax exemptions under state laws may be traced back to colonial times, the Parsonage Exemption was not codified in federal law until the Revenue Act of 1921. The original exemption only applied to housing that was provided by a church; therefore, ministers who were not provided
    housing could not exclude from their income the value of their housing. In 1954, Congress revised the statute and added § 107(2), which created the Minister’s Housing Allowance. The date of this
    amendment is significant. In 1954, the United States was in between the Korean War and the early years of the Vietnam War and was concerned with the spread of communism. In the same year the Minister’s Housing Allowance was codified, the words “under God” were also added to pledge of allegiance. The purpose of amending the pledge of allegiance “was to ‘acknowledge the dependence of [the American]
    people and . . . Government upon the moral directions of the Creator’ while simultaneously ‘deny[ing] the atheistic and materialistic concepts of communism.’” Considering the context of the threat of communism, it is important to note the comments of Representative Peter Mack, a
    congressman from Illinois. Representative Mack was the sponsor for the 1954 law, which codified the Minister’s Housing Allowance. Speaking before the House Committee on Ways & Means in 1953, Representative Mack stated the following in support of the Minister’s Housing Allowance: ‘Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and anti-religious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare.’ – https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/bitstream/handle/1808/20303/6-Langford_EIC_Final_Review_UPDATED.pdf?sequence=1

    Clearly these actions to promote religion, especially Christianity, were a response to our Cold War conflict with the USSR.

  • That’s just flat-out wrong. You don’t understand how it works. That portion of your salary which is designated parsonage is non-taxable. The government doesn’t actually give you money. If too much tax is withheld you can get back the amount withheld, but there is no way you can get back more than what was withheld.

  • Charles Arian: Oh, good! You seem to have more information than I do. Do you have a source for further information that we can read?

    P.S. I don’t appreciate the tone of your reply, but I’ll overlook it for now. I did state earlier that I was responding based on my memory of the details, which does imply that it’s likely inaccurate.

  • Yes, I realize every self-employed person doesn’t have a parsonage allowance – my point is that clergy are not unlike self-employed persons — they pay their own taxes, rather than having it held back by the employer. Charles Arian below is correct.

  • gapaul: Cool. So why is this needed? …other than a holdover from the Cold War and McCarthyism? Why is a person given a special way to file their taxes on religious grounds? Is there a secular purpose for this?

  • I agree with you in regards to the housing tax exemption. But why shouldn’t religion be tax exempt as any other not for profit entity — any think tank, (whether you agree with it or not) the garden club, Planned Parenthood, the Boy Scouts, your bowling team maybe –plenty of groups formed for association are not-for-profits. That’s not the “special” issue for religion. The clergy housing tax thing is different though.

  • I’m sure you could research the answers to your questions. I’m not even sure what you mean by “this.” The fact that clergy are treated as self-employed, or the fact that they have a special law affecting housing? As tor being treated as self-employed it matters not a whit — they still pay at the same tax rate as anyone — except for that housing thing. And btw, I’m not at all sure that the housing thing is, as you report, related to the Cold War and McCarthyism. I think it had to do with the argument that clergy were moved frequently, and their housing (like military personnel and a few other similar vocations) was at the whim of their transfer. That’s what I remember hearing, but I’m not going to take the time to research the matter.

  • The BSA etc. are not based on false foundations.

    On the other hand: There are different opinions as to what a religion really is or what a non-profit is. To be fair therefore, there should be no tax-exemptions for any group and that includes the Democratic and Republican Parties. Faith and community initiative grant monies should also be cancelled and there should also be no tax deductions for contributions made to charities and non-profits like the Center for American Progress. (John Podesta is the president of the CFAP making over $250,000/yr with eight managers/fellows averaging $200,000/yr each. Contributions made to CFAP for 2008 were in excess of $28 million.

  • Part of the argument the author is making is that from time to time Congress passes tax laws that are intended to benefit certain groups or classes of people. They do so because it is thought that this will strengthen those groups and contribute to the general welfare of the country: i.e., the marriage deduction promotes marriage, strengthens families, and through strong families stabilizes the wider community. Of course this does not treat single tax payers equally. Nevertheless, Congress feels it’s worth it. There are many such special arrangements for various groups or classes: farmers, commercial fishermen, those serving in the military, and so on. Then there are the special advantages given by Congress to corporations as individuals and classes. While we may complain about the sweetheart deals given to some, in others the whole country stands to benefit. Without government support green energy would not be possible, for example. Obviously, Congress thought a pastoral housing allowance strengthened religious communities, which in turn strengthened the nation. One last thought, since the allowance effects the tax of the religious professional and not the religious institution directly, it is only incidentally a support of that religion itself, thus preserving the separation. This sort of “social engineering” by the government drives libertarians nuts, but it has built a strong America.

  • In the mind of the beholder, my friend. I don’t like the BSA’s pseudo-military, God n’country shtick. But I recognize that we live in a country that values organizations of free association, and the BSA is that. I also don’t agree with the philosophy of Overeaters Anonymous or the CATO Foundation, but they’re nonprofit organizations too. So are many animal shelters — the no kill kind and the kill kind. Doesn’t matter which you prefer. Political parties are something else. And yes, we all know that large not for profits often have highly paid executives. Maybe too high, some argue, others say that running Planned Parenthood or the Red Cross requires the skills of a CEO, and in order to get an effective manager, they have to pay for it. Oh, and Peter Goettler, head of the CATO foundation, his salary is $370,000. So maybe Podesta should complain. But go ahead, argue for taxing contributions to all charities, big and small, religious or not. Good luck with that.

  • I would add that his worry about a slippery-slope seems like unnecessary scaremongering. All not-for-profits are tax exempt. Religious and otherwise. You can cloud up the issue — by claiming they shouldn’t be because you don’t like what they do or they pay their staff too much — but the fact is that the Boy Scouts, the Garden Club, the Cato Institute, the Red Cross — are all not for profits. Plenty of voluntary associations are. And they are tax exempt. Churches easily fall into this category. But the clergy housing thing? That’s another matter, and plenty odd, imo.

  • I think that a clear-headed analysis would recognize that religion belongs in the same category of not-for-profit as the Cato and Brookings Institutions, the Boy Scouts, etc. You don’t have to like what they do for them to be a not-for profit. This clergy housing thing is a different wrinkle, and indefensible, I think.

  • The problem, though, is that religion is required to stand apart from government, and vice-versa.

    Judge Crabb:
    “The question in this case is whether Congress may give a subset of
    religious employees an income tax exemption for which no one else
    qualifies.”

    The answer is, no, they can’t, because it’s religion.

  • Actually, Congress has passed many laws that religious organizations must comply with. It’s just too simple to say they “stand apart.” The courts have complicated the relationship by defining which religious employees are doing religion and which aren’t. Teachers in religious sponsored schools are considered ministers when it comes to complying with religious rules governing their behavior (no same sex marriage), but custodians aren’t ministers and presumably don’t have to comply. If teachers are ministers one would presume they qualify for a housing allowance.

  • The contributions are not the issue. Their tax-free capital gains and dividends on investments and their asset holdings especially properties and buildings are the issue.

  • gapaul:

    or the fact that they have a special law affecting housing?

    This

    they still pay at the same tax rate as anyone — except for that housing thing.

    This

    And btw, I’m not at all sure that the housing thing is, as you report, related to the Cold War and McCarthyism.

    Actually, I did a little digging and found that the 1957 modification to the Internal Revenue Code by Congress was an expanded form of a 1921 Act. The 1957 Act is not as modest about the religious motivations, directly addressing the “godless and anti religious world movement” that was an opposing superpower.

    http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1652&context=faculty_scholarship

    I’m looking forward to reading more of this article at work (^_^)

    …but again, I’m not seeing why this exemption is granted. If there’s a legitimate reason I’m waiting for someone to explain it.

  • Good sleuthing. And we agree, I don’t see the State’s interest in granting a housing tax break. The only one I’ve ever heard half-heartedly broached is contained in that article — that clergy housing may be used for their work (meetings, etc.) and I’ve also heard the argument that, like military personnel, (who I believe get the same break, as do perhaps other professions? Don’t know, but you could keep reading.) they may be moved frequently and at whim, so the idea was to give them the same break as military personnel. But I don’t know for sure — and I’m certainly not arguing the case.

  • gapaul: Still not seeing a justification. If you said something about separation of church and state in relation to clergy, I might agree. I’ve needed to move several times over the past decade for my job. Why can’t I apply this same justification to my non-religious job?

  • Like I said, I don’t see one either. I’m just telling you what I’ve heard people try to argue. It makes no sense to me either.

  • Well you did mention contributions. But go for it all– Boy Scout camps, church property, the VFW, private colleges — all not for profits with assets. Make a case for taxing it all. Like I said, good luck. And good luck extricating all the government money which is given in grants to religious and other private organizations, Planned Parenthood for one. Habitat for Humanity is another. It may burn you that churches get some of that money, but things have evolved so the government doesn’t own the buildings the food pantries go in, and it doesn’t pay volunteers — the government partners with synagogues and mosques and churches to do flood clean up, food programs, foster care, etc. Is it a great system? Maybe not. But its not going to change by tomorrow.

  • To sum up this article: ” we need to keep religious privilege because some (by no means all) religious beneficiaries are poor – but poor people who actually help society (teachers, etc) have to pay in full.”

  • I admit I had to do some online research on the history of non-profits even though I have worked for a few of them when I was a social worker. I found this Harvard paper on the subject that helped. “Historical Perspectives on Nonprofit Organization in the United States,” at https://sites.hks.harvard.edu/fs/phall/Herman-CH1.pdf. The paper explains how religious entities are different from 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 organizations. Reading tax code is an excellent soporific!

  • “Federal Judge Ancer L. Haggerty ruled, in the case of American Humanist Association v. United States (his decision in full is here), that secular humanism is a “nontheistic religion” that is entitled to First Amendment Protection. There are other issues as well—and you can see them if you want to wade through the long decision—but this is the gist:

    This year, the Seventh Circuit laid it out even more clearly, when making accommodations in prisons, states must treat atheism as favorably as theistic religion, and that, [w]hat is true of atheism is equally true of humanism, and as true in daily life as in prison. Although this decision was issued after the alleged violations occurred, the court does not find the Seventh Circuit’s opinion to be revelatory or a departure from existing doctrine. Rather, the court simply summarized the law as it is commonly understood. Thus, the court finds that the right was clearly established. . .

    and

    The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes. . .
    What I don’t like about the decision (bad stuff first) is that it gives ammunition to those theists who argue that atheism, humanism, or any other non-theistic movement is “religious”, so “we’re just as bad as they are.” (Religious people should be very careful in making these tu quoque arguments, since they implicitly denigrate religion!) Secular humanism is not a religion, at least if you take the definition given in my go-to source, the Oxford English Dictionary:
    Religion. Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

    We have no gods.

    But, in the main, I think this is a good decision, for it helps level the playing field between belief and nonbelief. For example, it means that secular humanist “preachers” should be have their housing allowances declared tax-free, as is the case now for “regular” preachers. (Of course, the right thing to do is eliminate such exemptions for everyone, something the Freedom from Religion Foundation is trying to do.) But by eroding the unwarranted preference for and authority of traditional theistic religions, I suppose the decision is a good one, and I agree with Greg Epstein:

    “I really don’t care if Humanism is called a religion or not,” Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, told ThinkProgress. “But if you’re going to give special rights to religions, then you have to give them to Humanism as well, and I think that’s what this case was about.”” – “U.S. federal court declares secular humanism a religion,” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/u-s-federal-court-declares-secular-humanism-a-religion/

  • Yes, I do know there are some slight differences — mainly regarding the paperwork religious organizations don’t have to submit.

    But for purposes of this discussion — even if that special category for religious organizations were to go away, it seems clear that religious organizations could simply be moved over to the not-for-profit category, same as any think tank or voluntary association like the garden club.

  • Cato and the Brookings Institutions I know nothing of – I was a Boy Scout – at a time when we had our annual holidays only a few miles from Brownsea Island.

    Organisations that are granted state ( UK usage – state as in nation) incentives (favourable taxation regimes etc,) should, in my opinion, be able to demonstrate that their existence is beneficial both to the people they serve and to the state which assists them. Whilst some activities which religious groups (and secular ones) undertake – food-banks, disaster relief etc, –
    meet those criteria simply being a religious group, in my opinion, does not.

  • The be a member of the BSA you must have a religious faith. Avowed atheists are barred from membership in the BSA.

  • I guess that it would all be simpler if we returned to the days of religious congregations having a parsonage. The parsonage was a home that was either attached to the congregation’s meetinghouse or elsewhere on the property. The clergy person lived in the parsonage for free as part of their compensation. Eventually clergy and their families got tired of living in a fishbowl and congregations purchased homes and condos located away from the meetinghouse property where clergy lived for free. The parsonage allowance arose when clergy wanted to buy their own homes and live where they wished to live in leu of living in a congregation owned parsonage for free.

  • I am a pastor of a country Church. Almost 90% of all Churches, country or urban, have less than 100 people who meet on Sunday morning for worship. The only way for many of these Churches to afford a full time OR bi-vocational pastor is the provision of a parsonage or the equivalent housing allowance. In the case of the parsonage, it has usually been paid off for some time. This means the Church can offer a competitive salary PACKAGE despite a usually decreasing budget. The elimination of the exemption at this point in history, would be detrimental to almost all of these congregations. It would be a major paradigm shift.

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