Faith in Action: Parsonage tax exemption must be used with integrity

www.bethyam.orgApril 14, 2013 

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NEASE — MCT

The tax deadline triggers an annual migraine. For others, April 15 represents a secular Day of Judgment. Yes, Americans are completing their federal income tax responsibilities. Accountants, tax attorneys and bookkeepers are scurrying around making final preparations and submitting documents on behalf of their anxious clients to the Holy Temple of the IRS.

Some have asked me, "Do you think that the folks at the Internal Revenue Service have a soul?" Knowing full well what it is like to work with the IRS, I asked some professionals in the field that same question. The kindest answer I received was, "Not likely, but possible."

Let's face it -- most people do not have a favorable impression of the IRS. Many people can tell stories about their dealings with that agency, who, like high priests, make life-changing decisions that affect the lives of every day Americans.

Does that include clergy too? Yes. Clergy have a unique situation in regard to the IRS. They also are subject to IRS rules, but they have some special benefits that most people are not aware of that relate directly to the work they perform. In fact, there are scholarly legal debates that go on to this very day as to whether clergy should continue to retain those generous benefits.

Clergy have what is called a "Parsonage Exemption," which means they are allowed to deduct a portion of the pay they receive from their congregations to cover expenses related to the maintenance of a home. It is a tax exemption steeped in biblical history as well as in the founding of the United States.

Our country has a long-standing practice of exempting religious organizations from paying taxes. Even before the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, four colonies included this exemption in their state constitutions, including South Carolina.

We have to go all the way to 1921 when Congress enacted the Revenue Act which exempted from the gross salary of clergy the rental value of any "dwelling house and appurtenances thereof," provided by a house of worship as part of compensation. In those days the law meant a house that the congregation owned which the clergy and family lived in. In 1954, Congress amended the tax code to say that clergy could still receive an exemption even if they did not live in a house owned by the congregation.

Congregations and clergy must treat this tax exemption with great care and moral integrity. It is not just about the clergy being honest about submitting reasonable expenses that qualify for parsonage expenses. It is, however, about a recognition that when clergy benefit personally from this significant tax exemption the American public picks up the tab. Should we infer that a clergy person has an obligation to serve the larger society beyond the borders of their own community? I think so. And should the board of the congregation that benefits from this tax exemption not also acknowledge that responsibility and be supportive of its minister, rabbi, imam, to give back to the community as well?

The parsonage is a symbol of a tradition that went back to Biblical times when the Israelites were commanded by God to allocate a portion of their harvest to the Levites who were, in effect, the tribal clergy of this burgeoning new people and faith tradition.

This tradition has carried on through history and into our nation's founding fathers' commitment to religion in the culture of American life. Using the parsonage exemption responsibly is of the utmost importance to maintaining the integrity of America's clergy today and of the institution of religion in American life.

I cannot say whether the IRS has a soul, but I believe this country has a great and generous one, which never should be taken for granted.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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