As secularists look to abolish a religious tax exemption, a pastor whose life is dedicated to serving those in need fights for what he calls a critical – and constitutional – support for his ministry.
“My church and the community are my lifeblood,” Bishop Ed Peecher of
Chicago Embassy Church has stated. “The hungry, the lost, the lonely –
they are my family. I spend my days serving them, praying, talking and
offering hope and an alternative to violence. This is my job, 24 hours a
day, 7 days a week.”
Peecher founded a church in one of the most notorious parts of
Chicago for crime. He works with gang members to stop violence and
establish peace in the neighborhoods through the Chicago Peace Campaign,
but also serves the local homeless population and is a mentor for young
residents in the Journeymen program.
“This work is possible because the church supports Bishop Peecher
through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live
minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need,”
explained the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
His allowance is tax-exempt through what is referred to as the “Parsonage Allowance.”
The law actually dates back 100 years, said the Becket Fund, which is
representing Bishop Peecher. Basically, if an employee needs to live
close to work and this poses an added burden for them, they can receive a
tax-exempt housing allowance.
Many types of employees make use of this exemption for secular
purposes, Smith explained, like military employees or persons who have
to move to other countries for their work.
“Ministers who live in the
communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold,” Smith said.
While ministers receive a tax-exempt housing allowance for living
close to their parish, these instances make up only a small percentage
of all housing allowances in the tax code, Smith pointed out.
But the secularist Freedom from Religion Foundation is suing the
Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and the head of the IRS John Koskinen
over this exemption, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of
the First Amendment.
They also challenged the allowance in court in 2011, winning at the
district court level but ultimately losing at the Seventh Circuit Court
of Appeals in a case where Becket Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief
on the side of the churches.
“Not only is this explicitly discriminatory against religious groups
when so many secular businesses and organizations receive similar tax
treatment, but it hurts churches and the communities they serve,” Becket
Fund stated of the newest lawsuit.
So Bishop Peecher and other clients like Holy Cross Anglican Church
in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian
Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are asking to join the government’s
side of the lawsuit as “intervener defenders.”
They want the court not only to hear the government’s case, but the cases of ministers who directly benefit from the exemption.
What is their case? The ministers need the tax-exemption to avoid
taking on a second job that would cut into their ministry, and the
churches can’t afford to spend more on their pastors without spending
less on religious activities.
For instance, regarding Peecher’s situation, he “uses his home to
fulfill his pastoral duties,” Becket Fund stated in its request to
intervene in the case. “He invites members of the Church into his home
for individual spiritual counseling, prayer meetings, and social events. Bishop Ed’s pastoral team meets in his home, and he prepares his
sermons in his home office.”
Thus, “the parsonage allowance also allows him to devote himself full-time to the ministry,” they added.
“Without the parsonage allowance, Bishop Ed would likely have to take
a part-time job to cover the increased tax burden. Alternatively, if
the Church were to increase his pay to compensate for the tax, the
Church would need to cut back its vital community ministries.”
Regarding the Orthodox clergy, the Becket Fund stated that “a priest
must be present to lead multiple divine services every week, and is
called to counsel his flock and visit the sick regardless of the day of
the week or the time of day that the need may arise.”
To do this, they “are required by Church regulations to live within the geographic boundaries of that parish.”
“The majority of parishes in the Diocese have budgets of less than
$100,000, and most priests are bivocational – meaning they work secular
jobs to support their families,” they added.
“Striking down the parsonage allowance would place a severe financial
strain on the parishes’ ability to provide for their clergy and would
likely force some priests to cut back on their priestly work to take
additional secular work.”
This could have a devastating spiritual impact upon a parish, the memorandum explained:
“Priests also have the responsibility to ensure that none of their
parishioners ‘dies without a final confession and the Holy Mysteries of
Christ.’ Secular employment makes it more difficult for a priest to
‘drop whatever [he] is doing to respond to a parishioner who is ill and
at risk of dying.’
“Forcing priests to take on additional secular work would take away
even more from the time that they can spend performing their pastoral
duties, and magnify the risk of the ‘great spiritual tragedy’ that would
occur if the priest ‘did not make it in time and one of [his]
parishioners died without a final confession.’ Thus, for the
Intervenors, losing the parsonage allowance would restrict, minute for
minute, dollar for dollar, the modest resources that they have to carry
out their religious missions.”