Atheists Don’t Want Religious Tax Breaks They’re Granted

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.

144 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a month ago

thanks for the article.

Carla van der Meer

As an atheist, I have chosen NOT to be part of an organized religion. I do not see why clergy need tax exemptions, especially the ones who preach hatred, misogyny and exclusion. Imagine all that tax revenue.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson2 years ago

instead we should ban the exemption from religious institutions, they want a say in the government? they can pay like honest americans

Beth F.
B F.2 years ago

Wow...well that's awfully "martyrlike", & I mean that in a good way but a bit ironic, isn't it? How 'bout just calling it a philosophy instead...

Alison Duncan
Alison Duncan2 years ago

The Blessed Church of Athiesm

We're all heads of our church, all preaching, all equally eligible for the tax break then?

In our church it would have to be all of us or none, because no one individual in the Church of Athiesm is above another.

It's a joke!

Toss a dog a bone, knowing it's toxic rubber.

All or nothing you beaurocratic zealots!

Religious tax exemptions/breaks were intended for ministers who lived under the poverty line.

Leave that standard as is, but instead of just preachers, allow people who live under the poverty line the right to the same housing deduction.

Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y.2 years ago

Agnosticism, Deism, witchcraft, and belief in unicorns and My Little Pony should also be classed as religions, then. Tax breaks all around, we need 'em.

Esworth L.
.2 years ago

Typing in all caps is like shouting instead of speaking in a normal voice.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F.2 years ago

I don't go along w/atheism. that said, I sure like that they want to do away w/tax breaks for religious reasons! You guys rock! Thanks for the great article

Anne Moran
Anne Moran2 years ago

SUBA G. - YOU JUST LOVE TO '''TWIST''' THINGS AROUND DON'T YOU ?? - NOT GONNA PLAY YOUR GAME....

Anna Undebeck
Anna Undebeck2 years ago

"You cannot currently send a star to pam .w because you have done so within the last day."
Thx for the aricle!