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Housing allowance defense joined by ERLC & GuideStone by Tom Strode

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NASHVILLE (BP) — The Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity will maintain its effort to preserve the ministerial housing allowance because pastors are crucial “for flourishing, vibrant communities,” Russell Moore said Tuesday (Oct. 10).

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) stands alongside GuideStone Financial Resources — the SBC’s health and financial benefits entity — in opposing an Oct. 6 federal court decision that invalidated the housing allowance, said Moore, the ERLC’s president. In the opinion, Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled the allowance an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment clause that prohibits a government establishment of religion — the second time she has done so in four years.

Moore described the opinion as “a sad development that represents a needless challenge to hard-working pastors devoted to serving their communities.”

“More still, this ruling is wrong: the housing allowance is in no sense the government establishing religion,” Moore said in a written release. “The allowance is neutral, applies indiscriminately to all religions and removing it would disproportionately harm clergy in small congregations across the country.”

GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins also took issue with the basis of the opinion in an Oct. 9 statement.

“The housing allowance, far from being a government endorsement of religion, as Judge Crabb contends, actually removes government from the equation,” Hawkins said in written comments. “Were it not for the housing allowance, the government would be imposing a tax on religious employers and their employees that is not imposed on non-religious employers.”

GuideStone has been monitoring the case — as well as previous related cases — and will attempt to file a friend-of-the-court brief as part of a coalition of denominational benefit boards, Hawkins said.

GuideStone and the ERLC also were united in opposing Crabb’s 2013 decision striking down the housing allowance. The entities issued a joint news release to protest her ruling at that time, then signed on to separate friend-of-the-court briefs urging the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago to reverse the decision.

The Seventh Circuit Court overturned Crabb’s ruling in 2014, finding the atheist organization that brought the lawsuit lacked the legal right — known as “standing” — to challenge the allowance.

GuideStone had joined in a brief by the Church Alliance, a coalition of church benefit programs, while the ERLC — as well as the International Mission Board — signed on to a brief with a diverse group of religious organizations.

At issue is a portion of a 1954 law that permits “ministers of the gospel” to exclude for federal income tax purposes a portion or all of their gross income as a housing allowance. Their church or church-related employer must designate the amount.

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