April 23, 2014

Fr. Gregory Jensen: Time to End Clergy Tax Breaks?

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Source: Acton Institute | Fr. Gregory Jensen

Unless you are a member of the clergy or involved with the finances of a church or temple, you probably don’t know that since 1921 the federal government has subsidized a congregation’s remuneration of its pastor.  This happens through the extension of a housing or “parsonage allowance” that makes it possible for an ordained member of the clergy to live “tax-free in a home owned by his or her religious organization or receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home if the congregation approves.” Originally, this was meant as a way of helping “minimize taxes on clergy members, whose compensation was often meager.”

Recent court cases have extended “the parsonage allowance to an unlimited number of homes, which may be owned either by the religious organization or the clergy member. However unintentionally, in doing this the courts may have opened “the door for the allowance to be applied to multiple homes used by leaders of wealthier ministries.” Among those concerned about the possibility that this will lead to abuse or an unjust situation is Senate Finance Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa).  ”It’s fair to question,” he says “why a clergy member needs a tax-free allowance for more than one home, and whether tax-exempt churches should subsidize millionaire ministers” (Tax Break for Clergy Questioned).

Yes, there will no doubt be those who abuse the system but when is this not the case? Religion plays a key role in maintaining a free and virtuous society, and an argument can be made that subsidies, such as the housing allowance or non-profit status for religious ministries, are a good thing for society lowering as they do the cost of maintaining a diverse range of religious communities which, in the aggregate, have a positive social effect.  

The recently issued document “A Circle of Protection” rightly points out that “Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices.” Christians from both the political left and right can, and should, agree with this.  Likewise, I think it would be difficult for me, or any Christian, to deny that “It is the vocation and obligation of the church to speak and act on behalf of those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” Nor would I, or any thoughtful Christian, deny that such a witness is essential part of “our calling” and that we must “strive to be faithful in carrying out this mission.”

Where some Christians might disagree is with their contention that the federal budget must give a “moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.” Others, like those involved with Christians for a Sustainable Economy, have done a very good job of criticizing the document’s equating support for government programs with support for people so I won’t repeat those criticisms here. I would however like to make a more general point.

A number of the signatories of “A Circle of Protection” are ordained clergy and/or representatives of various Christian denominations or ministries. Many, and I dare say most, probably benefit personally from the federal housing allowance for clergy.  Because they work for religious denominations that are also non-profit corporations, they benefit institutionally from what, in a slightly different context, might be called corporate welfare.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that there is anything necessarily wrong with either the clergy housing allowance or a ministry having non-profit status. As I said above, religious institutions play an important and essential role in fostering a free and virtuous society.

Nor am I calling into question the sincerity of anyone’s faith.  But I am mindful of the admonition that we “do no injustice in judgment” by being “partial to the poor” or holding in “honor the person of the mighty.” We are instead to be “righteousness” in our judgments (Lev 19:15, NKJV). I wonder whether or not under such a standard a Christian community can “be faithful in carrying out” its “mission” to speak for those in material need while at the same time accepting for themselves preferential treatment under the tax code.  In light of these considerations, perhaps those clergy who are advocating for more government spending would do their share for this cause by voluntarily—and very publicly—returning to the U.S. Treasury an amount equal to their parsonage allowance. Annually.

The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia and is a contributor to the Acton PowerBlog and the American Orthodox Institute’s Observer.

Comments

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    Thanks for posting my essay Father!

    In Christ,

    +FrG

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    You’re welcome!

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    cynthia curran says:

    I agree that some pastors should be paying taxes here. Also, mega churches should be paying taxes as well.

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    Geo Michalopulos says:

    I think that the only way the Church is going to survive in the future is if it loses its tax exemptions. People should not be able to deduct charitable contributions either.

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      George,

      My intuition is you’re correct, it is for the Church’s benefit to lose its tax exemption, but could you say why you think it is so?

      +FrG

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        Michael Bauman says:

        Father, I can’t speak for George, but as long as the Church holds on to tax exempt status the government can tell her what to preach and how to act (exactly the opposite of its intent).

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          Geo Michalopulos says:

          Michael, you took the words right out of my mouth. Plus, it would separate the wheat from the chaff. Those who are in it for the Faith will continue to give.

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          Salaam Yitbarek says:

          And the corollary – the Church strives to please the government in order to maintain her tax-exempt status.

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        Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

        I say no. If the Church aims to please the government to maintain the exemption, it is lost already anyway (the Church, not the exemption). If the Church gives in, then the state functions as a regulatory agency of the Church. You lose both ways.

        Government does not have a “right” to revenue, even though it needs revenue.

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    cynthia curran says:

    Well, the state has been involved with the church back to Constantine since he copied the pagan emperors by building churches instead of pagan temples, you are right probably the church is better off from the state.

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    Michael Bauman says:

    Of course giving up the tax exempt status offers no guarantee that the state will not impose punative ‘eccelsial’ taxes in the future. In fact it is almost an invitation for the state to do so

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    Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

    The housing allowance is a double edged sword (despite it being misused by some clergy as the article states). Some parishes already calculate it in the meager wages they give some priests.

    But in terms of “giving up” a tax exemption, let’s remember that the government has no moral claim on income generated by assemblies of worshipers, merely a legal one, and that is determined by Congress alone, not any extra-legislative agency.

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      Fr Hans,

      Your comment that the government has only a legal and not a moral claim on income generated by a parish caught my attention.

      I’m not 100% certain of what you do and don’t mean by this but I would argue that if the government has a legal claim on income it can only advance that claim if there is an underlying moral basis for the law. If there is no moral claim, then the legal is unjust.

      To take a different example, abortion is legal in the US but the underlying moral claim–that a mother has an absolute right to abort her child–is wrong from both the perspective of biblical morality and natural law. No one, under any conditions, has a moral right to take an innocent life. Therefore the laws supporting abortion are themselves immoral. Both Christians and people of good will have an obligation–at a minimum– not to comply with the law in this matter. Yes, this raises a number of practical questions, but my point here is not to argue the morality and legality of abortion. It is rather to point out that compliance with a law–in this case the tax law–is only morally licit if the law itself is based on a legitimate moral claim.

      Neither as a person of good will nor as a Christian can I obey an immoral law. If taxation is merely legal and has no moral foundation (as you assert) then not only does the parish have no obligation to pay taxes, they have a positive obligations NOT to pay taxes. Indeed they have an obligation not to participate–communally or personally–in the collecting or paying of taxes since to do so is to cooperate with an unjust and immoral law.

      I’m not advocating that Christians NOT pay taxes. Nor am I suggesting that you have done so here.

      It is however to point out that the State has a moral claim on at least some percentage of the income of its citizenry. While this claim can, and often has, been abused by governments, what has been abused is the State’s morally licit authority to levy and collect taxes.

      Just my thoughts on the matter.

      In Christ,

      FrG

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        Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

        I would refine it a bit further: The State, if it indeed has a moral claim on the income of its citizenry, defends the claim not on the ground that State has an declared right to the income of its citizens, but that the State has limited obligations that are moral in character — defense of the citizenry, public works projects, and so forth. IOW, the claim is necessarily tied to the tangible need and benefit of the citizens. It’s the citizens, not the State, that determines whether the taxes are legitimate.

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          Thanks for the clarification Father.

          I agree with you that taxes are not levied for their own sake but for the common good and it is in the service of that good that the State can legitimately tax the citizenry.

          Certainly in a democracy or republic, it is through the ballot box that the citizens have the final say about the legitimacy of taxes. If they think that tax revenues are being spent unwisely then they have the right and obligation to vote the bums outta office as they say.

          But again, for this to be the case, taxation itself must be morally legitimate. While a bad end can compromise a good means, even the best of intentions cannot justify an immoral action.

          While we can legitimately criticize the actions of the State, this is different from calling into question the moral legitimacy of government itself. There are morally good and bad forms of government but such an evaluation makes no sense save in light of concrete and objective moral standards. And so even though we are fallen, we are still social beings and will can, should and must organize ourselves in a way consonant with our communal nature.

          This, in my view, is the anthropological and moral foundation of secular government. Or, as you point out, government’s authority is for the good of all.

          Where we might be talking past each other is with my use of the term right. Unlike contemporary secular ethical analysis, in classical Christian moral theology there are no rights without corresponding obligations. The reverse is also true; obligations imply rights.

          In neither case, however, are rights or obligations absolute. What I mean by that is we can’t detach “rights” for their corresponding “obligations” or “obligations” from “rights.” They work together or not at all.

          Anyway, as I’m using the term here, the governments right to taxes is implies/presupposes an obligation to care for the tangible need and benefit of the citizens. The one condition here is that both means and ends must be in harmony with the moral law.

          We run into trouble when we separate rights and obligations–we have only to look around us to see the poisonous fruits of obligation free rights. BUT we also I think need to be careful that we not separate obligations from their corresponding rights. This also has led to great harm.

          One example that comes to mind is the education of the young. Parents have a moral obligation to educate their children and so have the right to do so. Assuming that parents are meeting their obligations, the State, for its part, must respect parents’ right to educate their children. Put another way, the State cannot–save under extraordinary circumstances–compel parents to send their children to school.

          Actually, I might even go further, and say that at a minimum the State has an obligation to not interfere without a compelling reason in the educational relationship between parents and children. While the citizenry can fund public education, the State cannot force compliance since to do so is to usurp the parents legitimate rights and so undermine the parents’ ability to fulfil their moral obligations to their own children. But this is for another day.

          In Christ,

          +FrG

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    Fr. John W. Morris says:

    In the case of McCullock V Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” If the state has the power to tax the Church, it will also have the power to control the Church. If the Church had to pay taxes it would have less money for its mission to preach the Gospel and help the poor. It will also be forced to contribute to things that the government does that is a violation of Christian teachings. Right now, our government gives money to Planned Parenthood, one of the most evil organizations in modern history. That is just one example of the waste, fraud and downright immorality of government spending. Just because a few clergy abuse their position, does not justify taking something away from the vast majority of Christian clergy who are getting rich and who are trying to serve Christ.

    Archpriest John W. Morris

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