Gaylor v. Lew

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
September 12, 2011
Current Court:
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin

Case Summary

Meet Ed Peecher, pastor of an African-American congregation

Thirty years ago, Bishop Ed Peecher founded Chicago Embassy Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Side of Chicago.

Today, his job isn’t limited to leading worship services on Sundays. During the week, Bishop Peecher devotes countless hours running the church’s many community ministries, such as the Chicago Peace Campaign, which has been successful in bringing peace to areas devastated by violence. There’s also the Journeymen program that mentors at-risk youth, and a homeless ministry focused on feeding the hungry and providing blankets and toiletry kits.

Bishop Peecher lives only minutes away from his church in order to better serve his community. He is able to do this because of the parsonage allowance, a tax law that allows religious employees to live nearby their work.

The parsonage allowance should remain available to all

For much of the past century, pastors, rabbis, imams and other faith leaders – whose job requires them to live close to their church or in an underserved community – have been eligible for a tax-exempt housing allowance under the same tax principle that allows businesses and the military to reimburse travel and overseas housing costs and provides tax-free housing to teachers and police who live in the communities they serve.

America has a long and proud tradition of incentivizing service. When pastors can live near the congregations and communities they serve, everyone benefits.

Defending all faiths from discrimination

However, the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing the IRS to force them to stop allowing rabbis, imams, and ministers – like Bishop Peecher – from receiving the housing allowance. Not only is this explicitly discriminatory against religious groups when so many secular businesses and organizations receive similar tax treatment, but it hurts churches and the communities they serve.

In 2011, FFRF sued in federal district court, which ultimately struck down the parsonage allowance. In 2014, Becket filed an amicus brief on behalf of a diverse group of Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, and Muslim organizations that would be harmed without the parsonage allowance. That same year, the Seventh Circuit rejected the atheists’ lawsuit.

In 2016, FFRF sued again. Bishop Edward Peecher of Chicago Embassy Church, Father Patrick Malone of Holy Cross Anglican Church, and the Diocese of Chicago and Mid-America of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, filed to intervene in the lawsuit, standing up to the atheists’ attempts to overturn this law just because it also happens to benefit religious groups. In January 2017, the motion for intervention was granted.

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