Chicago, Ill., Dec 15, 2016 / 04:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As secularists look to abolish a religious tax exemption, a pastor whose life is dedicated to serving those in need fights for what he calls a critical — and constitutional — support for his ministry.
“My church and the community are my lifeblood,” Bishop Ed Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church has stated. “The hungry, the lost, the lonely — they are my family. I spend my days serving them, praying, talking and offering hope and an alternative to violence. This is my job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Peecher founded a church in one of the most notorious parts of Chicago for crime. He works with gang members to stop violence and establish peace in the neighborhoods through the Chicago Peace Campaign, but also serves the local homeless population and is a mentor for young residents in the Journeymen program.
“This work is possible because the church supports Bishop Peecher through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need,” explained the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. His allowance is tax-exempt through what is referred to as the “Parsonage Allowance.” The law actually dates back 100 years, said the Becket Fund, which is representing Bishop Peecher.
Basically, if an employee needs to live close to work and this poses an added burden for them, they can receive a tax-exempt housing allowance. Many types of employees make use of this exemption for secular purposes, Smith explained, like military employees or persons who have to move to other countries for their work.
“Ministers who live in the communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold,” Smith said. While ministers receive a tax-exempt housing allowance for living close to their parish, these instances make up only a small percentage of all housing allowances in the tax code, Smith pointed out.
But the secularist Freedom from Religion Foundation is suing the Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and the head of the IRS John Koskinen over this exemption, claiming it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. They also challenged the allowance in court in 2011, winning at the district court level but ultimately losing at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in a case where Becket Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the side of the churches.
“Not only is this explicitly discriminatory against religious groups when so many secular businesses and organizations receive similar tax treatment, but it hurts churches and the communities they serve,” Becket Fund stated of the newest lawsuit.
So Bishop Peecher and other clients like Holy Cross Anglican Church in Wisconsin and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia are asking to join the government’s side of the lawsuit as “intervener defenders.” They want the court not only to hear the government’s case, but the cases of ministers who directly benefit from the exemption.
What is their case? The ministers need the tax-exemption to avoid taking on a second job that would cut into their ministry, and the churches can’t afford to spend more on their pastors without spending less on religious activities. For instance, regarding Peecher’s situation, he “uses his home to fulfill his pastoral duties,” Becket Fund stated in its request to intervene in the case.
“He invites members of the Church into his home for individual spiritual counseling, prayer meetings, and social events. Bishop Ed’s pastoral team meets in his home, and he prepares his sermons in his home office.” Thus, “the parsonage allowance also allows him to devote himself full-time to the ministry,” they added. “Without the parsonage allowance, Bishop Ed would likely have to take a part-time job to cover the increased tax burden. Alternatively, if the Church were to increase his pay to compensate for the tax, the Church would need to cut back its vital community ministries.”
Regarding the Orthodox clergy, the Becket Fund stated that “a priest must be present to lead multiple divine services every week, and is called to counsel his flock and visit the sick regardless of the day of the week or the time of day that the need may arise.” To do this, they “are required by Church regulations to live within the geographic boundaries of that parish.”
“The majority of parishes in the Diocese have budgets of less than $100,000, and most priests are bivocational — meaning they work secular jobs to support their families,” they added. “Striking down the parsonage allowance would place a severe financial strain on the parishes’ ability to provide for their clergy and would likely force some priests to cut back on their priestly work to take additional secular work.”
This could have a devastating spiritual impact upon a parish, the memorandum explained: “Priests also have the responsibility to ensure that none of their parishioners ‘dies without a final confession and the Holy Mysteries of Christ.’ Secular employment makes it more difficult for a priest to ‘drop whatever [he] is doing to respond to a parishioner who is ill and at risk of dying.’
“Forcing priests to take on additional secular work would take away even more from the time that they can spend performing their pastoral duties, and magnify the risk of the ‘great spiritual tragedy’ that would occur if the priest ‘did not make it in time and one of [his] parishioners died without a final confession.’ Thus, for the Intervenors, losing the parsonage allowance would restrict, minute for minute, dollar for dollar, the modest resources that they have to carry out their religious missions.”