Monday, November 25, 2013

Should Minister's Housing Be Taxed?

There is a constitutional question.  Does the ministerial housing allowance exemption establish religion?  Does it violate the equal protection as it gives one profession a tax advantage over another?

The courts will decide that question.

As a matter of policy, should ministers get this preferential treatment?  

I don't know, and I am not going to try to figure that one out.

The question presumes a neutral position of the decider. That there is someone who objectively decides what is in the best interests of society as a whole. Whether such a person exists, and why, other than being elected, any person should take on that point of view, I doubt.

I am a minister, whose first circle of solidarity beyond my family are my colleagues.  And I am a particular minister: retired, financially secure, not currently enjoying the ministerial exemption for housing, although I will in the future.

So decency and solidarity keep me from advocating a position that will damage my colleagues so directly, when such pain is more remote for me.

At the same time, I fear for our professional self-interest leading us astray.

I would not advocate for a response that would further separate us from the people that we serve.  We already claim a lot of privileges that they don't have, which they must pay for.  I am aware that my spouse works incredibly hard at a profession which demands new knowledge all the time, and a sabbatical is never possible for her.  To go to those we serve and insist that they make up what we will lose when the IRS taxes our housing allowance: is that where we ought to be?

So I say, remember the context.  The income and wealth are being concentrated at the top.  Our position as ministers of locally supported congregations will be better served if the minimum wage is raised significantly, if the social security benefits are increased and not cut, if our congregants have health security, if there is major investments in infrastructure and education, if our communities have abundant food, if we have a growing and expanding economy, if prosperity is shared.


4 comments:

Tony Johnson said...

Solidarity with colleagues is, as you state, a top priority. But you also point toward solidarity with the congregation and community. The area of clergy taxes is complicated not just by the housing allowance, but also the requirement that we pay self-employment tax rather than be subject to withholding and FICA. A knot with many strands.

Steve Cook said...

Since entering the profession 20 years ago, I have wrestled with our complicated tax situation, feeling stupid and inadequate when trying to explain it to boards, while at the same time, disquieted by taking advantage of what can legitimately be seen as a special break. However, I reflect on the reasons for the special break being instituted not, as I understand, by some sort of lobbying and influence buying effort on the part of ministers, but by the legislature attempting to square the circle of two different tax statuses applied to us, while, I also believe, attempting to encourage religion as a good for society as a whole. In this way, we've also chosen to encourage home ownership, marriage and child-rearing by creating tax breaks for what are deemed those societal goods. I'm ready to see this whole thing re-thought, but it should include all of the above, not just ministers, who some seem to feel should pay for the sins of Rick Warren's swimming pool. More to come, certainly.

politywonk said...

The old glebe tax often comes to mind these days. That's because when one of the larger funeral homnes up here has a particular kind of service to be done, by agreement with the local UU society and minister, I am the worship leader they call. It doesn't happen very often -- not enough to make a living -- and yet other times, such deaths come in a flurry, even as my colleagues -- one settled and one emerita-- are performing the same sad duty for other families.

I can't make a living on an occasional $250 fee, but these folks also can't really find the celebration and comfort they seek from anything other than our own multi-sourced, "let's write this thing together" tradition of worship.

Who dies? Everybody. Who wants a proper ceremony for themselves and those they love? Everybody. Then maybe it's time for this same "everybody" to admit the need to sustain the availability of us who have entered this profession. I liked the way Singapore did these things: you got a set number of days off for whatever was sacred to you, and your kid got education about whatever religion you specified, and you had to help pay for the structures that made all this available. Was there censorship? I'm sure there was, because Singapore was that kind of nation, especially then. No "social gospel," that's for sure. But there was also a financial support system for all new parents and all workers, from cradle to grave, with plenty of paid health care. So most of what I would call Social Gospel was, to them, a matter of civic pride.

Which brings us back to marrying, burying, and all those holy days with familly.

affirmandpromote said...

My main reason for supporting the ministerial tax exemption as it is has to do with the lack of protection ministers have under the law. In our employment while there used to be some legal remedies available to ministers in employment situations since the courts have adopted the doctrine of ministerial exemption we are without the safeguards and remedies provided by the department of labor OSHA or the rights and protections others have under the ADA. Add to that the figures on clergy turn over and recidivism (1 in 4 are forced to resign from a position at some point and the vast majority to whom this happens never return to ministry). Then add to that the average term of a ministerial career which if we are talking service in a parish or denominational position I think it is 8-11 years on average. If we received the sort of top level pay that enables leaders to get by for several years between positions then I would look at it differently but we don't so my call would be if we are subject to the same tax burden then churches should be accountable in employment situations if not to the law at least to their espoused principals and employment commitments.