Time for clergy tax break to go?

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Religion and politics are two of the three things you should never discuss at a polite dinner party. They occasionally come up, however, when you talk about taxes.

There are many popular tax breaks that cost the U.S. Treasury billions of dollars. Expect them to get at least a cursory look by the new special committee created to find ways to reduce the federal deficit.

But another less-common tax benefit also has received some recent attention as folks explore all possible ways to get Uncle Sam any additional dollars. And it involves the convergence of religion and politics.

The U.S. Tax Court recently determined that ordained taxpayers can buy or live in multiple homes tax-free. The decision came in the case of Phil Driscoll, a minister who also happens to be a Grammy Award-winning trumpeter who went to prison for tax evasion.

Under the parsonage allowance section of the Internal Revenue Code, a qualified member of the clergy may live tax-free in a residence owned by his or her religious organization or, if the congregation approves, may receive a tax-free annual payment to buy or rent a home.

Driscoll and the Internal Revenue Service were at odds over $408,638 that he got from his church to buy a second home on a lake near Cleveland, Tenn.

Driscoll argued that the word “home” in the tax law’s clergy residence exclusion section is equivalent to “homes,” just as “child” is interpreted to mean “children” elsewhere in the tax code. That would mean Driscoll wouldn’t owe taxes on the church money he got for his waterfront property.

The Tax Court judges, by a narrow 7-6 margin, agreed with Driscoll. Do you?

Should ministers get tax-free housing? Should it apply to multiple homes?

Or should members of the clergy have to pay for their residences, either by buying them on their own, in which cases they still could deduct mortgage interest like layman homeowners, or by having the value of church-provided housing counted as taxable compensation?

Supporters of the tax break say that Driscoll’s multiple home situation is unusual. They note that in most cases ministers aren’t paid very much and the housing break helps minimize taxes on these relatively low earners.

Others, however, say that the tax break is unfair and needs to go. The IRS doesn’t keep statistics on the parsonage tax benefit, but opponents of the tax break argue that in this time of deficit scrutiny no amount of potential tax money should be excluded, even when it’s associated with a higher power.

Among those interested in examining the clergy residence tax issue is Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa. The ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee has said he wants to ensure that the spirit of the provision isn’t violated.

We’ll just have to wait and see if Congress takes up this potentially contentious conversation. It could happen. Since our federal legislative body already conducts itself in a pretty impolite manner, it shouldn’t be bothered by having a religious tax conversation.

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