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Clergy Housing Allowance Survives Attack (For Now)

The relentless efforts of a Wisconsin family to pass judgment on the clergy housing allowance were again stalled by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in a decision announced Friday, March 15, 2019. The Court reversed the decision of a lower court in Gaylor et al v. U.S. Treasury which ruled that the clergy housing allowance was unconstitutional.

Had the original decision stood, ministers in the states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin would have lost the exemption from income taxation for church compensation designated to provide for clergy housing costs. As has been the case since the early days of social security, a clergy housing allowance remains subject to the 15.3 percent self-employment tax. We believe that the loss of the exemption to ministers within the 7th circuit would have quickly spread to all U.S. clergy.

As advisors to many ministers, MinistryCPA expressed concern not only with the financial and public policy attacks against religious ministries, but with the financial consequences to the families serving in them. Gleaned from materials we presented in two conferences held in the Midwest in 2018, the following financial challenges were averted by the 7th Circuit decision:
  • Increase in ministers’ federal, state and local income taxes.
  • Disappearance of low-income ministers’ federal earned income credits (and state piggyback credits).
  • Significant reduction in premium tax credits on HealthCare.gov for health coverage on the exchange.
  • Termination of many ministry families’ health care eligibility for state programs.
In 2013, Mrs. Anne Gaylor of the Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and her daughter and son-in-law, Annie Gaylor and Dan Barker, successfully convinced Judge Barbara Crabb of the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin that the clergy housing allowance was unconstitutional. The 7th U.S. Circuit reversed that decision in 2014. Before Anne’s death in June 2015, she and her daughter and son-in-law again convinced Judge Crabb that their judgments were just. Her son, Ian, continued the fight on behalf of her estate.

In its news release on the day of the appellate court decision, the FFRF gave no indication whether the Gaylor family would attempt to take its fight beyond the 7th Circuit.

We are thankful for the result of the appellate decision and what it represents as a defense of religious ministries.

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