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Church-state separation

Conflicts involving the
Internal Revenue Service (IRS)

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Overview: Religious conflicts involving the IRS:

The principle of separation of religion and government (frequently called separation of church and state) appears in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It forbids Congress from recognizing a particular faith group as a state religion. Subsequent rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have widened the application of the Clause to prohibit the federal, state, and local governments from:

  • Promoting one religion over another.
  • Promoting religion over secularism.
  • Promoting secularism over religion.

Many of the conflicts over the separation of church and state do not really involve financial matters. They are conflicts like the presence of the Ten Commandments, crosses, or other religious symbols on land owned by the government or in government buildings. But some do involve money. Significant friction arises over the freedom of speech of religious leaders. The IRS does not forbid clergy from promoting a specific candidate for office. However, doing so can jeopardize the church's tax exempt status.

Examples of church/state conflicts that do involve the IRS are:

  • Religious institutions are allowed to provide tax free housing for clergy. This is a benefit not available to other tax exempt organizations.
  • Clergy who own their own houses can write off all their housing costs as expenses on their personal income tax. Again, this is a perk not available to employees of other tax exempt groups or to the population generally.

This essay will discuss some of these conflicts, starting in early 2010.

2010: IRS-Religion conflicts:

  • 2010-FEB-17: Freedom from Religion Foundation launches lawsuit: The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) notes that religious institutions can save money by compensating their priests, pastors, ministers, and other leaders with tax-free housing owned by the institution. Also, clergy who own their own home can write off all their housing costs. These advantages are not available to the FFRF or to any other non-profit organizations that are not religious in nature. They have initiated a lawsuit in an attempt to create a level playing field. 1,2

  • 2010-FEB-23: Tax exemption for "The Fellowship:" Thirteen Ohio clergy who are members of Clergy Voice have complained to the IRS that the C Street Center's claim for federal tax exemption is invalid. The exemption is reserved for religious establishments. The complaint claims that the Center is "an exclusive club for powerful officials ... masquerading as a church."

    Clergy Voice wrote:

    "At bottom, it does not appear to be a house of worship 'reasonably available' for the public to use. We are aware of no reports of the C Street Center conducting religious education for the young, holding services for the masses or promulgating religious teachings."

    They believe that the Center serves no public interest and has no recognized creed or form of worship.

    It is in a 130-year-old brick townhouse at 133 C Street SE, Washington, DC. The center rents living space to lawmakers. They share meals and Bible study. It drew the attention of the media recently when:

    • Governor Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina mentioned that he had sought spiritual advice there over an extramarital affair.
    • Senator John Ensign (R-NV) is alleged to have had an affair there.
    • The estranged wife of Rep. Charles Pickering Jr (R-MS) claimed that he had entertained his mistress there.

    Investigators from Washington DC inspected the house during 2009 and assessed it as 66% taxable and 34% tax exempt. 3

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare andupdate the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Freedom from Religion Foundation files suit to end tax break for ministers," Religion News Blog, 2010-FEB-17, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/
  2. Text of the FFRF lawsuit is at: http://www.tennessean.com This is a PDF file.
  3. Peter Slevin, "C Street house target of clergy's IRS complaint," Washington Post, 2010-FEB-23, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/

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Copyright © 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 2010-FEB-24
Latest update: 2010-FEB-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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