How does the government respond when atheists allege that tax breaks for religious organizations are unconstitutional? By declaring atheism a religion and extending the tax breaks to atheist organizations, too. That raises a couple of big problems, however: many atheists don’t want to be labeled a religion or receive the financial incentives that go along with that distinction.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the chair of Freedom from Religion Foundation, has headed a lawsuit to eliminate a longstanding “parsonage exemption”. The rule permits “ministers of the gospel” to a tax-free housing stipend from their salaries. Since it provides perks only to religious groups, the atheist organization alleges that it defies the Constitution. It’s an issue that has been a point of legal contention for more than a decade now.
Courts have tried to resolve the situation by extending the same tax-exempt privileges to people like Gaylor, as well. According to the Justice Department, atheism qualifies as a religion, meaning Gaylor has a minister-like status as the head of her group and can declare a similar tax break for housing on her forms. Officials point out that Buddhism and Taoism are considered religions even though they don’t believe in a god either.
Gaylor, however, finds this distinction ridiculous. Declaring atheism an organized religion shows a lack of understanding of what atheism is. Besides, the point of Gaylor’s lawsuit was not to earn herself a tax loophole, but to limit the special powers granted to religious groups. Freedom from Religion Foundation is also pursuing lawsuits to mandate that churches file taxes in the same way as other charities and to block ministers from endorsing certain political candidates.
Religious advocates concede that, while the First Amendment does allow religious groups certain privileges, it is done in order to prevent the government from infringing on religious freedoms.
Congress has scrutinized the parsonage exemption in recent years after Rick Warren, a California minister, was found to possibly be defrauding the IRS with the way he filed taxes. New rules were put in place to specify that religious heads can only claim a break for one home and it must be in the amount of the money actually spent on the house or the fair market value.
Ultimately, labeling atheism a religion might cause more problems than government officials are anticipating. Not only are atheists unhappy with being called a religion, it’s hard to imagine that faith-based groups will be pleased to be categorized in a similar manner. This decision designed to maintain the status quo could wind up being lose-lose in the court of public opinion.
Gaylor does find humor in one part of the U.S. government’s decision. In the 1920s, the parsonage exemption was specifically created to provide clergy the opportunity to “fight against godlessness.” Nearly a century later, the government has now granted the same monetary incentive to an institution that specifically promotes godlessness.