A nationwide atheist group is asking religious leaders to take Jesus’ advice and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s — especially when it comes to taking the federal tax break on their housing.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation says the housing exemption gives churches an unfair advantage because they can compensate their leaders with tax-free housing. Other nonprofits, such as the foundation, can’t do that. So it’s suing the federal government to outlaw the housing allowance.
But the exemption’s supporters point to a similar court dispute in 2002 that went nowhere after Congress almost unanimously rushed to save the housing break.
Dan Busby, who runs the watchdog group Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, thinks Congress would do the same today.
The Justice Department is expected to file its first response to the Freedom from Religion lawsuit by the end of the month.
Since the 1920s, the Internal Revenue Service has given ministers a tax break on their housing. Ministers who live in church-owned parsonages get that benefit tax-free. And since the 1950s, clergy of all faiths can write off all their housing costs, even if they own their own homes.
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A series of controversial billboards recently displayed throughout Metro Detroit is drawing curious stares and criticism from the local faith community.
The seven billboards read “Imagine No Religion” and “Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief” with a stained-glass window motif. They are sponsored by the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group that touts itself as the largest free thought association in the nation.
The billboards, at various Detroit locations, are part of a monthlong campaign aimed at provoking debate about the role religion plays in daily life and public policy, said Annie Laurie Gaylord, co-president of the foundation.
But many in the local religious community consider the billboards offensive.