Entries appear in chronological order.
The damn New York Times
stopped preaching and started to
meddle. I knew our unfair tax breaks on housing would come to light one
day. I see no reason why I should be able to deduct my housing expenses
while my neighbor cannot. But when it gets threatened, all the church
boards, including mine, rush in to lobby Congress with all sorts of
dubious reasons why the clergy housing deductions should be preserved.
They act just like any other institution to defend self-interest. It is
unjust, but I claim every penny of mine, don't you?
FROM KEN DEAN TO KEN CAUTHEN
Sometimes a matter has to be
understood in its proper context. The reason you get a housing
deduction is that "the community" once believed that it was helpful to
have a "settled" pastor in place as the frontier developed. It also
gave free land to school boards. This settled pastor also got a given
amount of corn and produce from the fields, and very little money.
Pastors still get very little money, but no corn or wheat. Then
it was recognized that a pastor was not eligible to use his time and
energy to participate in the free economic enterprise system of profit
and production....meaning, of course, that he would have a
smaller salary than other professionals, so he gets special treatment
on housing. Often times the housing is owned by the church, so when
retirement comes he is out on his ass with no where to go. (You ought
to have yours kicked for writing this peace!) When churches start
paying pastors really livable salaries and giving them benefits
comparable to doctors and lawyers and other professionals (state
retirement programs and health insurance comparable to University
professors and civil servants of the state) you go right ahead and take
your housing deduction and do not feel for one second that you are
slighting your neighbor. Both you and your neighbor bring something
important to creating, re-creating and sustaining community and this
has nothing to do with where the nub of the issue is for our day. I
used "his" in describing the "getting it together years" for defining
how a local pastor gets compensated because in those days the pastors
were all "he". So you may feel free to go back through my paragraph and
insert "he/she" to make it up to date. But the housing allowance issue
will still come out the same. I think this issue may come under what
you used to teach as "contextual ethics."
Peace and blessings to one and all
from down here in your home state of
Kenneth Dean, Sr.
FROM KEN CAUTHEN TO KEN DEAN
My dear apostate Baptist, Colleague, Friend, fellow
Southerner, fellow lover of old-time country music,
To steal from Kant, we have here a nest of "dialectical difficulties"
that I won't pretend to untangle completely but will make a few
marginal comments. I see two arguments in your reply: one about
community building and the other about the poor compensation of clergy.
Your first argument about settled clergy serving a community-building
function meriting state subsidy predates the incomes tax we are talking
about and smells like the era of established churches in a state that
sees religion as creating disciplined, virtuous, but docile
citizens who will not threaten the status quo. That is an argument for
the conservative role of religion in society that pleases the state,
but it is not one that a Baptist ought to be making. If we
fufilled our role as descendants of the OT prophers, Walter
Rauschenbusch, and Martin Luther King, Jr. associated with the beloved
serminary at which both of us have taught, we would be as often raising
hell and disrupting the community -- as you have done more than I have
in the past.
In the income tax era, the rationale has been stated in a brochure
prepared for Jewish clergy, and I quote:
When the income
tax was enacted, clergy salaries were negligible: Many, if not
most clergy were given a place to live, minimal
provisions, and a very small salary. The fair market value of non-cash
items was to be counted as
income, but the government recognized that it was unfair to tax clergy
on the value of the parish house. Thus the parsonage
exemption was created."
Assuming that this is the historical justification, it seems weak to
me. Why should the value of a house not be counted as taxable income?
It is the functional equivalent of cash paid that can be used to
rent or buy a house. In any case it constitutes a direct state subsidy
to clergy and indirectly to the religious institutions that employ
them. It, in effect, adds income to clergy at government expense. OK,
clergy as a whole are poorly paid compared to other professionals. That
is a problem, but why is it the state's problem? The near-poverty
status of clergy is no justification for a government subsidy unless it
is combined with something like your "community building" as a service
to the community or some other rationale for uniquely privileging
clergy. I have ready rejected that.
The argument from poor clergy compensation as such has no merit at all.
Lots of working people are as poor or poorer than clergy on the
average. Why should they not have a housing deduction too? Of course,
we all have more money to spend because of the housing deduction, but
to argue that I could not have done X or Y or Z without it is no
argument at all. It simply recognizes that the government pays us
a certain amount because we are clergy. What is the current
justification of the housing bonus? I know of none whatsoever apart
from the sheer self-interest of clergy.
Just for the record, a housing deduction is in effect a direct grant of
money to clergy and eligible religious institutions and as such is a
violation of the separation of church and state, understood strictly,
as Baptists should interpret it.
That is my basic response. I will offer some concluding thoughts just
for the hell of it.
The aides in the nursing home who changed my Mother's diapers are very
poorly paid, and they could use a government subsidy to help with
housing expense. The same could be said for janitors and maids who
clean the toilets of professionals and business types at a pittance of
what those who dirty the toilets make. I would argue that
such people also contibute to "community." By the way, it
should be a law strictly enforced that those who dirty toilets should
be compelled to clean them in proportion to their usage. George with a
plunger and Laura with a toilet brush in the White House would be
splendid model for America. This task teaches humility, virtue,
promotes delicacy in using toilets and would be for us all a
community-building enterprise. Get this law passed, and I will argue
that a housing deduction should be given to all who earn it through
By the way not all clergy are poor: In 1995 Pastor Rick
Warren of the 18,000 member Saddleback Community Church in California
deducted $79,999 for actual housing costs—the IRS challenged the
deduction, claiming the “fair market value” (rental per year) would
allow only $59,479.
Nevertheless, my fellow-Baptist, you offered the best defense of an
erroneous position I have seen lately.
Yours in service to Jesus, our model, who said, "Foxes have holes, and
birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his
head." Matthew 8:20
LATER REFLECTIONS OF KEN CAUTHEN
Since my impulsive outburst about the clergy housing deduction, I
realized how ignorant I was of its history and rationale. Since then I
have Googled and learned enough to be an untrustworthy guide. Like so
many issues it gets very complicated with many complexities,
ambiguities, nuances, subtleties, distinctions, and fine points
of law and logic. Courts, Constitutional lawyers, and Judges,
including those on the Supreme Court, have argued for and against
is the gist of what I have learned.
1. Exemption of religious institutions from property tax goes back to
the beginning of the country. The argument for it is that it is
necessary to separation of church and state in establishing sectarian
sovereignty as a protection against state action. The tax
exemption does not subsidize churches, but leaves them alone. Some
judges argue that religion serves a secular purpose that merits state
support. Justice Brennan stressed the "secular" benefits to
society of these exemptions: these institutions foster "moral or mental
improvement" and are "beneficial and stabilizing influences in
community life." This is the
Dr. Kenneth Dean’s point.
(Walz v. Tax Commmission,
US 664 (Decided May 4, 1970)
2. In 1921 the parsonage exemption was established in the income tax
code, which dates from 1913, enabling clergy to exclude from income the
value of the housing provided. Since 1954, the provision had also
shielded clergy members from taxes on the entire portion of their
paycheck designated by their congregations as a housing allowance,
whether they spent it on renting an apartment or buying their own home.
But the rules the IRS. adopted in 1971 limited the deduction to the
smallest of three amounts: the “fair market rental value” of the home,
the housing allowance paid to the minister or the minister’s actual
3. In 1996 the IRS ruled that Rev. Rick Warren had exceeded the “fair
rental value” in his claim and reduced it. On May 16, 2000, the United
States Tax Court struck down the IRS cap and ruled that clergy members
could deduct “the amount used to provide a home,” however much
that might be. The IRS appealed to the United States Court of
Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. A great battle ensued
in the Court aided and abetted by major Protestant, Catholic, and
Protestant church agencies. One question raised was whether the clergy
housing deduction violated the Constitution. Before the Court
could decide the Clergy Housing Clarification Act of 2002 had been
approved unanimously in both houses of Congress and signed into law by
President Bush. The law ruled that no limits would hold on past
housing claimed but from now on the “fair rental value” rule would
apply. That’s where we are now.
1. Some clergy who live in employers provided housing as a condition of
employment or for the convenience of the employer are eligible for tax
relief under general rules of tax law that have nothing to do with
religion. Granting a housing exemption to all clergy prevents
discrimination against those who don’t qualify under that rule.
2. Tax relief favoring religion has deep historical roots. Therefore,
the parsonage exemption is well within the accommodation tradition
through the early colonial and
national period, including most significantly the dis-establishment
era, right up until today. Indeed, the parsonage exemption is part and
parcel of the types of reasonable accommodations listed by the three
dissenting justices in Texas Monthly
These reasonable accommodations,
described by the three justices as those which “today permeate the
state and federal codes, and have done so for many years,”
1. It is a subsidy to religion in violation of the Constitutional
separation of church and state. Legal scholars, Constitutional lawyers,
and Judges at every level including
the Supreme Court have affirmed this point.
2. It privileges clergy in relation to non-clergy and thus
discriminates against them. Others whose work is valuable to society
and who may be
as poorly paid as clergy have no such advantage. These other low-paid
care-givers, community builders, and workers essential to society have
to provide for their own housing during working years and retirement
without benefit of a housing deduction.
Moreover, clergy are allowed to "double-dip" in that they can count
mortgage payments and property tax as part of the housing expenses to
deducted and then deduct them again on their 1040 forms just like
Granted that, unlike most other people, they do have to pay all their
Social Security taxes, but so do all other self-employed persons.
I include some references:
“In the context of tax benefits, the “subsidy” label is usually
deployed in a conclusory and unconvincing fashion. The First Amendment
is best understood as permitting governments to refrain from taxation
to accommodate the autonomy of religious actors and activities; hence,
tax benefits extended solely to sectarian institutions should pass
constitutional muster as recognition of that autonomy. Since it is most
compelling to conceive of religious tax exemption as the acknowledgment
of sectarian sovereignty, rather than the subsidization of religion,
there is no convincing constitutional reason to link that exemption to
the simultaneous extension of comparable tax benefits to secular
entities and undertakings.”
Edward Zelinski, friend of the Court in Rick Warren case.
Friend of the Court Opinion in Warren Case
"Therefore, the parsonage exemption
well within the accommodation tradition dating at least to 1601, and
extending through the early colonial and national period, including
most significantly the dis-establishment era, right up until today.
Indeed, the parsonage exemption is part and parcel of the types of
reasonable accommodations listed by the three dissenting justices in
Texas Monthly. These
reasonable accommodations, described by the three
justices as those which “today permeate the state and federal codes,
and have done so for many years,”
1970 court decision SC of USA upholding tax exemption of church
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2005, Part I
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Pope John Paul
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Church as Impotent Political Force
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Authority of the Bible
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Masculine and Feminine
the Problem of Evil
A Heterodox Alternative
Faces of Evil
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Incompatibility of Christianity
Relativism, Morality, Belief
Themes in Country Music
Themes in White Southerners
Drugs and the Little Red Hen
Sex Love is OK
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