On Friday a federal judge ruled that an IRS exemption that gives clergy tax-free housing allowances is unconstitutional. The exemption applies to an estimated 44,000 ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and others. If the ruling stands, some clergy members could experience an estimated 5 to 10 percent cut in take-home pay.
Aside from the question of constitutionality, the clergy exemption raises a question that many people — whether religious or not — are likely to be wondering: Why exactly do ministers receive a tax exemption for their housing allowance?
At the website of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, I explain the historical, legal, and ecclesiological reasons for allowing the exemption and why it’s an issue of religious freedom:
Since at least the time when Joseph served in Pharaoh’s Egypt, religious property has been exempt from certain forms of taxation. (Genesis 47:26) The practice continued in the Roman Empire and through medieval Europe and was part of the common law, which America adopted from England. The common law granted tax exemptions to established churches and, through the equity law tradition, to all churches. From the 15th century to the 19th century, most pastors lived in the parsonage, a house provided by the church. Housing was thus a form of non-cash payment that was exempt from taxation since the parsonage was church property.