October 25, 2018
Bishop Edward Peecher asks himself three major questions in evaluating his role as a pastor and the work of Chicago Embassy Church, located in southside Chicago: "Is it going to make a difference in the city? Are we going to communicate the truth of the gospel? Is somebody going to be helped?" But lately, Bishop Peecher may be asking himself another question: Will I be able to live near the community I promised to serve?
Churches across the country could face an additional "$1 billion in new taxes" after a lawsuit filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which challenges a decades-old tax exemption for what is sometimes called a "parsonage allowance." The tax law governing the parsonage allowance lets a minister exclude his or her housing allowance from "gross income for income tax purposes." Similar exemptions are available for jobs in secular industries under what's known as "the convenience of the employer" doctrine.
Yesterday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit heard oral arguments for the case. Becket is defending Bishop Peecher, Chicago Embassy Church, and other pastors and religious groups involved in the lawsuit. Under the exemption, pastors can focus on their work in the surrounding neighborhood and community rather than worrying about finding a place to live. The benefit is really for the employer -- in this case, the church. There's not any sort of kickback for the employee. The pastor, as a shepherd of his flock, is no less obligated to benefit others with the exemption. Ministers who have living accommodations "are often expected to treat their home like a second office and host scripture study groups or parties." As Bishop Peecher says, "There is no substitute for proximity. You have to be there."
Becket argues that despite the FFRF's claim that the exemption is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, the exemption actually reduces the likelihood of a violation of the Establishment Clause. Removing the exemption gives the government more opportunity to entangle itself in religious matters or discriminate against religious groups.
And there's another irony. Although the Foundation is filing this suit under the guise of helping others, Bishop Peecher notes, it does so "without lifting a finger to help us at all -- except to hinder what we do." Churches are responsible for countless services to the community and are the refuge for "the least of these," Matthew 25:31-46. The 7th Circuit is expected to make its decision by early next year. We hope the court will make the right choice and uphold this longstanding exemption which is good policy for everyone!
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.