Section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that a minister of the gospel’s gross income doesn’t include the rental value of a home (parsonage) provided; if the home itself isn’t provided, a rental allowance paid as part of compensation for ministerial services is excludable. The benefit is generally referred to as a parsonage allowance. Thus, a minister can exclude the fair rental value (FRV) of the parsonage from income under IRC Sec. 107(1), or the rental allowance under Sec. 107(2), for income tax purposes. The Sec. 107(2) rental allowance is excludable only to the extent that it is for expenses such as rent, mortgage payments, utilities, repairs, etc., used in providing the minister’s main home, and only up to the amount of the FRV of the home.
However, either type of parsonage allowance is only excludable for income tax purposes and is subject to self-employment taxes, although for years before 2018 and after 2025, the amount subject to self-employment tax can be reduced by the minister of the gospel’s employee business expenses.
Back in October 6, 2017, in the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, Judge Barbara B. Crabb, in Gaylor v. Mnuchin (the treasury secretary), concluded that Section 107(2) of the Internal Revenue Code is unconstitutional. Specifically, she concluded that this code section violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because it does not have a secular purpose or effect and because a reasonable observer would view the statute as being an endorsement of religion.
The code section under judicial fire is the part of code Sec. 107 allowing churches and other religious organizations the ability to provide tax-free housing to their ordained ministers, even though the housing is not provided in kind by the church or the religious organization. This provision of the code was envisioned to provide ministers of the gospel with modest tax-free housing. However, it contains no limitations on its application and, as a result, also applies to:
- Televangelists like Joel Osteen, who uses this tax provision to live tax-free in his multi-million dollar mansion.
- Other ordained ministers working in church-affiliated schools as teachers and administrators who also benefit from the provision.
It has been estimated that the government foregoes in excess of $800 million in tax revenues because of the provision.
Judge Crabb, in issuing her decision, directed the parties to file supplemental materials regarding what additional remedies are appropriate, if any. The judge subsequently stayed injunctive relief until 180 days after the final resolution of all appeals. The additional time will allow Congress, the IRS and affected individuals and organizations to adjust to the substantial change. This case will certainly be appealed to the circuit court and eventually to the Supreme Court. So, we will need to keep our eyes on this case and see how it plays out in the long run.
It should be emphasized that Sec. 107(1), which permits an amount equal to the rental value of a parsonage furnished to a minister as part of his or her compensation to be excluded from income, is not affected by Judge Crabb’s ruling; thus, this benefit continues to be income-tax free.
Ministers of the gospel will also feel one of the negative aspects of the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017 (aka tax reform), which suspended the deduction for employee business expenses. Thus, beginning in 2018 and through 2025, ministers of the gospel will no longer be able to reduce the amount of their housing allowance by their employee business expenses when computing their self-employment taxes.
Have a tax question? Contact Charles Woodson.
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