Attorney General Hunter Joins 17-State Coalition Defending Religious Leaders against Atheist Group’s Lawsuit

OKLAHOMA CITY – Attorney General Mike Hunter has joined a coalition of 17 state attorneys general to defend the housing allowance religious leaders receive from the federal government.

In a brief, supporting an appeal filed by clergy members and churches, the attorneys general ask the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse an October 2017 judgment that declared the parsonage allowance unconstitutional.

The original lawsuit was filed in 2011 by the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation. In its petition, the group claims the tax exemption for housing allowances violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Attorney General Hunter said the tax exemption is vital to communities and religious leaders.

“The parsonage allowance dates back to the founding of the country and is supported by the Constitution,” Attorney General Hunter said. “If upheld, the ruling stands to place a financial burden on religious organizations, which will harm outreach and charitable services provided to worthy causes and our most needy, vulnerable citizens.

“My colleagues and I stand by all faiths in defending this important resource and against the attack from this atheist group. We encourage the court to follow centuries of law and custom and reverse this ruling.”

In the brief, the attorneys general write that the exemption is constitutional and has been accepted by the colonies, the early states, Congress and the Supreme Court and is still practiced today.

“The federal parsonage allowance applies when a church-employer gives a housing benefit to a ‘minister of the gospel’ as ‘part of his compensation,’” the brief reads. “This is the essence of the deeply rooted parsonage system: a church giving its minister a home to live in while he or she serves that church and its congregation.”

The attorneys general also express concern that if the ruling isn’t overturned other tax exemptions offered to religious groups will become exposed to potential lawsuits, such as exemptions for sales tax, state income-tax and real property.

“Each of these laws may be vulnerable to attack in light of the district court’s opinion, causing incalculable disruption to the states and their citizens,” the brief concludes.

To read the brief, click here. 

In addition to Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, the brief was signed by attorneys general of Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan.