On October 9th, a federal judge in Wisconsin has struck down the housing allowance for ministers citing it as unconstitutional and giving preference to religious institutions.
As you read this, you might be thinking I would vehemently oppose this measure, as it affects me directly, but I’m not in vehement opposition. Yes, it would be a major tax hit on me, and yes, it would dramatically impact the ability of pastors to do their job, and even open the doorway to taxing the buildings our churches use for worship, but it would also free up some things.
First, it would free clergy up to speak politically in the pulpit allowing them to endorse candidates. This won’t please all the churches or clergy serving currently, and it may make them more contentious and less friendly environments for people of opposing views to sit together. However, it may also free up clergy to speak directly to issues they feel burning in their hearts. The currently law, in some ways, prevents clergy from exerting undo pressure on the election process, but it was written in a day and time when religious institutions were more able to sway the general process.
You may not know it, but clergy are not allowed to endorse one candidate over another while in their religious institutions. However, they can endorse candidates when not in the pulpit or church institutions provided they state they are making the endorsement from their personal perspective and not from their 501(c) (3) institution affiliation.
Furthermore, as we in the Christian Church share our 501(c) (3) status, anytime one minister threatens the status, we all are subject to scrutiny from the Federal government. While this hasn’t seen major challenges in the past, it is likely it will be one of the next shocking developments to come. In summary, as more and more of our clergy make bold statements on the current charged political climate, it seems like only a matter of time before some of those cases make national headlines.
A second thing a change in the tax exemption would do is to force churches to either give up their parsonages, church buildings, and hopefully pay pastor’s a living wage, allow them to contribute to the tax burden that is shifted to the general population and change dramatically how the church uses their buildings. It could be argued that paying taxes on our church buildings would force churches to be more invested in their communities, and even be considered reasonable, as we expect fire and police help when our buildings and people are under assault. I merely ask, “Shouldn’t we be paying our fair share?”
One of my dear friends was living in a parsonage that was in such terrible condition it caught fire resulting in loss of life. If that congregation had to pay taxes on that property, it probably would have tipped the scales and forced them to sell that old house. I’m not suggesting the shift in responsibility would automatically upgrade the pastor’s living conditions, indeed, it may do the exact opposite, but it would absolutely force churches to take a more serious look at their owned properties and shift the burden of housing to the clergy themselves. Too many church building sit empty during the week. Only when the churches face financial crisis do they take serious steps to use their building as a resource. This tax shift may force drastic action from churches sitting on their assets. It may light a fire under them to act and cause churches to open in ways they never opened.
So, you may think I’m in favor of the tax shift – No - I’m not really all that excited to see this change. Some churches may use their unrestricted political position to dramatically influence elections. Other churches would simply close and cause a greater decline in the number of churches closing each year. The decline is steep enough! I am simply suggesting that a change will come eventually. I am also saying, “It won’t be the end of the world.”
Pastor Neil Allen
Pastor Neil Allen
I am blessed to serve as the pastor of Queen Anne Christian Church, an amazing community of wise and thoughtful people.