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Clergy housing allowance struck down again by David Roach

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MADISON, Wisc. (BP) — For the second time, a federal judge has ruled the U.S. tax code’s ministerial housing allowance is unconstitutional.

Mississippi College law professor Matt Steffey told Baptist Press the ruling, unlike U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb’s previous attempt to strike down the housing allowance, could be upheld on appeal to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Mississippi College is affiliated with the Mississippi Baptist Convention.

The judge appears “bound by existing law to decide the case this way,” Steffey said. “The way the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause” to forbid preference of religion over non-religion “dictates to a lower court, which must follow the existing Supreme Court precedent to arrive at this decision.”

Crabb’s Oct. 6 ruling eventually could be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court if a majority of its justices are willing to change the high court’s longstanding interpretation of the Establishment Clause, Steffey said, which is “possible.”

Codified as part of a 1954 law, the ministerial housing allowance permits “ministers of the Gospel” to exclude for federal income tax purposes a portion or all of their gross income as a housing allowance. The Internal Revenue Service has interpreted the law broadly to include religious workers of various faiths as “ministers of the Gospel.”

The benefit saves ministers an estimated $800 million annually, according to Christianity Today.

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