Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

Last year, Wisconsin federal district court judge Barbara Crabb ruled unconstitutional the tax exemption for ministers receiving a housing allowance as a part of their compensation. The decision sparked a firestorm of protest among many in the faith community. The Baptist Joint Committee’s Brent Walker disagreed with the ruling, noting that, far from singling out religion with the housing allowance rule, the tax code includes a variety of housing-related exemptions. Today, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Judge Crabb’s ruling, finding the plaintiffs in the case do not have standing to bring suit because they had not suffered any injury as a result of the challenged rule.

Freedom From Religion Foundation co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker argue that the very fact that they are not eligible for a tax exemption because of their lack of religious affiliation amounts to a denial of government benefits, allowing them to bring a suit. But the 7th Circuit found they left out a small but necessary step: they were never denied a tax exemption.

From the court’s opinion:

This argument fails . . . for a simple reason: the plaintiffs were never denied the parsonage exemption because they never asked for it. Without a request, there can be no denial. And absent any personal denial of a benefit, the plaintiffs’ claim amounts to nothing more than a generalized grievance about § 107(2)’s unconstitutionality, which does not support standing.

Insofar as the district court . . . suggest(s) that asking for and being denied a tax exemption should not be a requirement for establishing standing because doing so would be a waste of time, we cannot agree. Perhaps . . .  requiring the plaintiffs to request and be denied the parsonage exemption will be a “futile exercise” that will not improve the court’s ability to resolve the constitutional challenge, but this is beside the point. The Constitution does not allow federal courts to hear suits filed by plaintiffs who lack standing, and standing is absent here because the plaintiffs have not been personally denied the parsonage exemption.

Because the Appeals Court found the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit, they did not consider the question of whether the parsonage exemption does in fact unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of religion. That question will have to wait for another day, a different case.