New Jeresey Synagogue 521.
(photo credit: DAN IELLA CHESLOW)
A US federal court decision that declared unconstitutional a tax exemption on
clergy housing has drawn the ire of Jewish groups in the United
Judge Barbara Crabb of the Wisconsin Federal District Court ruled
on Friday against a long-standing tax exemption on housing allowances provided
to clergymen by their congregations.
While the original exemption dates
back to 1921, the bill in question dates from 1954.
Jewish groups across
the spectrum articulated their discontent with the decision this
“Parsonages and parsonage allowances are a key element of many
synagogues’ charitable mission that they provide to the community,” Bob Levi,
the chairman of the board of the National Council of Young Israel, an
association of modern Orthodox synagogues, told The Jerusalem Post
Levi said that should the decision result in a change in the tax
code, it would make it “a lot more difficult to attract and retain qualified
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of
the The Rabbinical Assembly, an international association of Conservative
rabbis, agreed with Levi, telling the Post
that the ruling “would indeed have a
profound impact upon the entire religious sector across the United
Disallowing the so-called parsonage exemption would put many
rabbis “at risk of losing their homes,” she asserted.
“Owing to dramatic
increases in housing costs across America, many of our synagogues are located in
areas where the cost of a home in walking distance of the synagogue is out of
reach of any rabbis’ salary or the synagogues’ resources to pay
Homes were purchased taking into account the exemption to make the
budget work,” Rabbi Schonfeld explained.
Speaking with the Post, Rabbi
David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,
the legal arm of American Reform Judaism, said that he believes there is “a
strong constitutional argument for this exemption, and if it fails in the
current form we would be able restructure it legislatively to meet the court’s
The Reform movement, he added, is “confident in the end that
we will be able to protect the financial well-being of our clergy and our
Since the implementation of the ruling has been stayed
during the appeals process, he said, “nothing is going to happen in the short
According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the litigants
in the case, $2.3 billion in tax revenue was lost between 2002 and 2007 due to
the parsonage exemption.
“The court’s decision does not evince hostility
to religion – nor should it even seem controversial,” FFRF attorney Richard L.
Bolton stated after the decision. “The court has simply recognized the reality
that a tax-free housing allowance available only to ministers is a significant
benefit from the government unconstitutionally provided on the basis of
Steven Woolf, the senior tax policy counsel at the Jewish
Federations of North America, said that the FFRF “has been attempting to
challenge the constitutionality of the parsonage allowance for almost 7 years,
but there is a legal doctrine called standing which has been a stumbling
“They have overcome standing I believe by characterizing
themselves as ‘atheist ministers,’” he said.
“The parsonage allowance has
a long-standing history in the United States, as a demonstration of the great
importance our nation places on the role of clergy in American civil life.
Congress quickly and virtually unanimously came to the defense of the parsonage
allowance when it was subject to attack over a decade ago, and we are certain
that it would, with our support, again protect this provision that has been part
of the fabric of our tax law and civil society for almost 100 years,” added
William Daroff, the JFNA’s chief Washington lobbyist.