Court ruling could toss out parsonage allowance

Tuesday, October 10, 2017
Chris Woodward (

First Amendment (Bill of Rights)A court ruling threatens churches and other places of worship with nearly $1 billion in new taxes.

The ruling out of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin would end the parsonage allowance, a longstanding tax provision.

According to the ruling, the parsonage allowance "violates the Establishment clause because it does not have a secular purpose or effect and because a reasonable observer would view the statute as an endorsement of religion."

"This ruling breaks nearly 65 years of precedent and threatens churches across the country with nearly $1 billion in new taxes," says attorney Hannah Smith of religious law firm Becket, which is fighting the case. 

Talking about this case Monday on "Washington Watch with Tony Perkins," First Liberty Institute attorney Ken Klukowski said he was not surprised by the ruling, given that it's Judge Barbara Crabb and her far-left view of what the Constitution's Establishment clause means in the First Amendment.

"It says Congress should make no law respecting an establishment of religion," Klukowski explained. "I understand how she reached her decision. I think it's wrong, not because she didn't engage in a careful analysis, but because she fundamentally flips on its head what the Establishment clause is supposed to all be about."

In 2011, Judge Crabb ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional and that decision was later overturned.

Because of Crabb's history of anti-religious bias, says Klukowski, there is hope that another judge will take the case on appeal and arrive at the opposite conclusion.

According to Smith, the Becket attorney, the federal tax code also covers secular employees who receive a housing allowance from an employer. So Crabb's ruling, she argues, is actually discriminatory against faith-based employers and an employee such as a pastor.  

Klukowski went on to state that whenever someone brings a lawsuit claiming an Establishment clause violation to Judge Crabb, it's always the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). That is the atheist organization at the center of this case involving the parsonage allowance.

"I'm actually encouraged about one aspect of this case and that is the Supreme Court had a seminal change of course moving back to the historical meaning of the Etablishment clause in its 2014 case, Town of Greece versus Galloway," Klukowski continued. "As cases like this get offered up to the Supreme Court, it gives the high court an opportunity to say, Yeah, you all are basing your decisions based on an aberration regarding an Establishment clause. We have now returned to the original, public meaning of that."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Becket senior counsel Hannah Smith.

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