Churches are exempt from having to file Form 990 with the IRS. This exemption has been in place since the early 1940’s when Form 990 was adopted, and non-profit organizations were required to file the form with the IRS. This was brought about by a concern that tax-exempt organizations were using their status to engage in unfair competition with for-profit businesses. Churches have held to be exempt, as to do so would violate the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has filed suit in a federal district court in Wisconsin, alleging that it was required to file a “detailed application” (Form 1023) and pay a fee before obtaining tax exempt status, and has also been required to file “detailed, intrusive and expensive annual reports” (Form 990) in order to maintain that status. Read More
On September 7, as was discussed in “Appeals Court Upholds Clergy Housing Exemption,” the Seventh Circuit of appeals reversed a Federal District Court decision that ruled the minister’s housing allowance was unconstitutional. The suit had been brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So the housing allowance survives, for now.
The Appeals Court ruling was actually based on the fact that the plaintiffs, Dan Barker and Laurie Anne Gaylor (co-presidents of FFRF) did not have standing to sue as they had not been denied the benefit of a housing allowance. In ruling that the plaintiffs did not have standing, the court did not actually address the issue of the constitutionality of the housing allowance. Read More
The 7th U S Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) that challenged the constitutionality of the clergy housing allowance. The suit was originally brought in the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin where Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the tax break for ministers was unconstitutional. Her basis for the ruling was that the law benefited religious people and no one else. The decision, which would potentially eliminate the most important tax break for ministers, was stayed pending appeal.
The law allows ministers of the gospel to exclude income tax on amounts designated by the church as housing allowance. Self-employment taxes are payable on these amounts. In addition, ministers may “double dip,” as they are allowed to deduct mortgage interest Read More
The housing allowance is a significant tax benefit for a minister. It can result in thousands of dollars in tax savings annually. The law currently allows a minister to occupy a church-owned parsonage without paying income tax on the value of the accommodations. Alternatively, the church may designate an amount to be paid to the minister as housing allowance. This amount, when used for housing costs, is not subject to income tax. Both a parsonage and a housing allowance are subject to self-employment taxes.
Only One Home Subject to Housing Allowance
Several court cases have recently been brought, seeking to limit or abolish this tax benefit for ministers.