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(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.
Mortgage - Estate - Taxes - Utilities - House
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.
Clergy - Stripes - Fear - Day - Judge
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.
Question - Members - Clergy - Housing - Expenses
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.
Salaries - Life - Styles - Clergy - People
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.
Clergy - Members - Parsonage - Allowance
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.
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