Obama administration to appeal clergy tax ruling

Government attorneys will appeal a ruling striking down a widely used tax benefit extended to clergy.

By Robert Dilday

The Justice Department will appeal a federal court ruling last fall that allowing clergy to avoid paying taxes on a part of their income designated as a housing allowance violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

The department filed a notice of appeal with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago Jan. 24, just days before the Jan. 27 deadline. It’s not yet clear what arguments government attorneys will make in defending the law.

Last November, Senior United States District Judge Barbara Crabb said a section of the tax code granting a benefit for “ministers of the gospel” not available to everyone else favors religion over non-religion, thus creating an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

But Crabb, whose jurisdiction is in Wisconsin, stayed her decision pending appeals, leaving the law intact in that state.

If the Seventh Circuit affirms Crabb’s ruling, it would affect only Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, but might prompt the Internal Revenue Service to apply the ruling nationally to ensure consistent tax treatment of ministers.

If the appellate court overturns the ruling, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the suit, could appeal to the Supreme Court.