Today, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision upholding the constitutionality of the clergy housing allowance. Rather than wait until to see if the Supreme Court would clarify its currently jumbled Establishment Clause jurisprudence (as we recently speculated they might), the Seventh Circuit ruled that the housing allowance is constitutional under all of the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause tests.
Judge Brennan, writing for a unanimous panel of the court, explains how the clergy housing allowance is not substantially different than the tax benefit afforded those secular workers, be they teachers, nurses, or prison wardens, who receive tax exempt housing when it is for the convenience of their employers. Ultimately, affording religious leaders and their ministries a similar tax benefit is not preferential treatment but equal treatment.
The court also held that the clergy housing allowance advanced several secular purposes and was part of an effort by Congress to continue its “historical practice” of exempting certain religious resources from taxation. Moreover, the court held that the housing allowance leads to less rather than more entanglement between church and state.
Noel Sterett attended the oral argument in October and co-authored a friend-of-the-court brief with Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Erik Stanley on behalf of 8,899 pastors in support of the housing allowance. Coincidentally, Noel also argued a religious land use case before the Seventh Circuit just a week after the housing allowance case was argued. Noel received a favorable decision (also authored by Judge Brennan) in January, 2019, so we appreciate Judge Brennan prioritizing our RLUIPA decision and would like to thank all the clergy out there who have had to wait for today’s decision. In any event, it was worth the wait.