Tuesday, 27 August 2013

US Atheists (and Atheistic Buddhists) get Religious Tax Breaks

How does the U.S. 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.

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