Atheists’ Suit Against Ministers’ Housing Allowance Lands in Federal Appeals Court

San Francisco, CA – Opening briefs were filed last week with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a lawsuit filed by atheist Michael Newdow and the Freedom From Religion Foundation against a centuries-old practice of giving ministers a “parsonage allowance” or tax exemption for their housing.

The Ninth Circuit will consider who gets to defend the federal and state statutes being challenged. A group of ministers represented by Pacific Justice Institute sought to intervene as defendants in the case, since they would be most directly affected by the outcome of the case.

A federal district judge in Sacramento ruled in December that the IRS and state tax collectors would adequately represent the ministers’ efforts to maintain their current exemptions, even though PJI attorneys pointed out that tax authorities have significant revenue to gain and nothing to lose if the atheists prevail. The IRS has also previously sought to limit the scope of the ministerial housing allowance. The Sacramento court dismissed PJI’s concerns about these conflicts of interest as being overly “cynical” toward the government.

PJI President Brad Dacus commented, “Achieving justice in our courts requires the time-honored adversarial system, where all sides of a case are fully heard. When government tax collectors have every incentive to agree with the people suing them, you cannot expect a vigorous defense, and it is vital that the ministers who will be most affected by the outcome of this case be allowed to intervene. The IRS defending a tax exemption is like the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse.”