The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America – the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization – has joined with other religious organizations in filing a ‘friend of the court’ brief that defends a longstanding tax exemption for housing costs for rabbis, pastors and other clergy in the face of a lower court ruling finding the allowance unconstitutional.
The legal brief, authored by law professor Tom Berg, calls on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to overturn a 2017 ruling by the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in the case of Gaylor v. Mnuchen.
The lawsuit, first brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in 2013, asserts that the 64-year-old tax provision providing clergy with a tax subsidy for housing costs – commonly known as “parsonage” – is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
If the lower court’s ruling isn’t reversed, clergy and congregations in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, which fall under the Seventh District court’s jurisdiction would initially be affected. But because the tax code is part of U.S. law, the ruling could ultimately hurt hundreds of thousands of clergy and congregations across the country that have long relied on the vital tax exemptions. In the United States, 81 percent of full-time senior clergy receive a housing allowance, as do 75 percent of associate clergy and 67 percent of full-time solo clergy.
Orthodox Union Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament stated:
“Parsonage – the clergy housing allowance – had been relied upon by congregations for decades in how they recruit and compensate their clergy. It is one of many provisions in the tax code that subsidize the housing costs of people who must live in a particular location for the sake of their jobs. The legal brief the Orthodox Union joins in filing presents to the appeals court the massive disruption that will be caused if the parsonage allowance is invalidated.”
Orthodox Union President Mark (Moishe) Bane stated:
“We stand with rabbis and other clergy across the country and call this lawsuit exactly what it is: an attack on clergy across the country and religion in general. If this ruling isn’t reversed, many rabbis, ministers, priests and other clergy could be forced to leave their congregations altogether and countless synagogues, churches and other houses of worship would have to shut their doors not only to worshippers but others seeking all manner of help, guidance and solace. We as a country cannot afford to let this happen.”