Court Decision Appears to Discriminate Against the Faithful
An issue over housing expenses and taxable income among the religious is causing great concern right now
A federal judge recently decided that clergy may no longer exclude housing expenses from their taxable income.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb last Friday handed a victory to a secular atheist group that has been challenging this favorable federal tax provision — known as the parsonage allowance — for the past six years.
The ruling breaks nearly 65 years of precedent and threatens churches across the country with nearly $1 billion in new taxes.
It will also have devastating effects on pastors like me. I am the senior pastor at Chicago Embassy Church in South Side, Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago and first attended Chicago Embassy Church with my parents as a young child. When I was 17 years old, I became active in the church's youth ministry where our church's founder, Bishop Ed Peecher, took me under his wing.
Because of Bishop Ed's mentorship, I did not become one of the familiar statistics for African-American young men on the South Side. Rather, Bishop Ed trained me in the ministry, and I soon began preaching at the church.
At first, I split my time volunteering at the church with my career as a community organizer. I worked on then-state Sen. Barack Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. I helped lead Chicago's "Rock the Vote" campaign and the field operation for a statewide initiative to improve public school funding in Illinois. I started my own public affairs firm that advances issues important to Chicago's inner-city communities of color.
But when the call came for me to become the church's senior pastor, I turned over the day-to-day leadership of my business so that I could spend more time on my demanding pastoral duties.
As lead pastor, I both minister to our congregation and lead the community outreach ministries that have such a vital impact on some of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side. Those ministries are dedicated to bringing peace to areas devastated by violence, mentoring at-risk youth and providing relief to the homeless.
I receive a very modest housing allowance, which I use to help provide a home for myself, my wife and our four children.
I use my home as an important meeting place for members and leaders of the church to congregate and to receive pastoral care. My home plays an even more central place now that our congregation can no longer afford to maintain the church building in which we had met for many years. Our congregation gathers for worship in a rented space at a nearby synagogue, but other church meetings — including leadership gatherings, Bible study, social events and spiritual counseling — often take place in my home.
The central place of my home to our church community is at the heart of the litigation over the parsonage allowance. Although the church cannot afford to pay me a full salary, I receive a very modest housing allowance, which I use to help provide a home for myself, my wife and our four children.
That housing allowance is excluded from my gross income under a federal tax provision that allows ministers to be treated on equal terms with many other secular employees who also receive housing allowances from their employers. These housing allowances receive favorable tax treatment because certain employers must have their employees live close to their place of employment in order to best fulfill their job responsibilities.
That is certainly the case for ministers like me and other religious leaders around the country, who must be on call 24/7 to minister to the needs of their congregations and surrounding communities.
I was disheartened by the judge's decision on Friday, which does not give equal treatment to our nation's faith leaders. The additional taxes — close to $1 billion — that would be imposed on churches and religious leaders around the country would be devastating.
Any additional expenses would be a significant financial burden on Chicago Embassy Church and could threaten its mission to continue our vital community ministries. If I am forced to pay additional taxes, it could require me to spend more time with my business to cover additional costs, and leave less time for me to tend to my flock's spiritual needs and to the needs of our community.
I joined this lawsuit to defend the parsonage allowance, so that pastors like me in small community churches across the country can continue to do their good work. My job and life's purpose are one and the same: to serve my congregation and our community 24/7. Living close to my faith community is vital to that mission, and faith leaders across the country should not be discriminated against for doing so just because they are religious.
Chris Butler is the senior pastor of Chicago Embassy Church in Chicago. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service; this piece originally appeared in RNS.