Parsonage Allowance: Hanging in the Balance?

What a Recent Federal Court Decision Might Mean for Clergy

On October 6, a Wisconsin federal judge ruled that the parsonage allowance authorized by Internal Revenue Code §107(2) is unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  You may recall that the same judge ruled the same way back in 2013, but her decision was reversed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on standing grounds, without addressing the substantive issue of the statute’s constitutionality (full text of the decision is available here).

Judge Crabb’s ruling will again come before the Seventh Circuit.  If that court upholds the decision, ministers in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana would be affected.  But the matter would have a good likelihood of ending up before SCOTUS and, if upheld there, the parsonage allowance would no longer be available to clergy. Please note that § 107 (1), which excludes the rental value of actual parsonages from taxable income, would remain intact – at least until that is challenged.

If parsonage allowances were to be removed from the Internal Revenue Code, clergy would be affected significantly.  For some, their income could be sliced nearly in half.  “Ministers,” to include clergy of all faiths and denominations, are typically not wealthy people; their focus in life is often their mission rather than personal indulgence. The humble income they derive from their work is often barely enough to get by, and further reducing it would in some instances be devastating.

Worse yet, the impact of such a change in the law would disproportionately hurt those who need more. Clergy of wealthier congregations who live in a congregation-owned home would not be affected; sadly, those serving smaller congregations with moderate financial resources, and whose compensation is far more modest, would suffer the most.

Nelson Madden Black plans to be filing an amicus brief in the Wisconsin matter, so stay tuned for updates!

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