Jewish groups protest US court decision deeming clerical tax breaks unconstitutional

Disallowing the so-called parsonage exemption will put many rabbis “at risk of losing their homes,” Rabbinical Assembly VP warns.

New Jeresey Synagogue 521 (photo credit: DAN IELLA CHESLOW)
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 States.
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 week.
“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 on Monday.
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 rabbinic leaders.”
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 States.”
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 them.
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 concerns.”
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 synagogues.”
Since the implementation of the ruling has been stayed during the appeals process, he said, “nothing is going to happen in the short term.”
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 religion.
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 block.”
“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.