Originally published on Passive Activities And Other Oxymorons on December 19,2010, this post commences my fascination with the parsonage exclusion - Code Section 107, which provides for an unlimited exemption from income tax of the housing allowances, in-kind or cash , of "ministers of the gospel". When I did a recap of my coverage on the issue in November 2013, there were over twenty posts and there have been more since. IRS won on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit in the Driscoll case, but of much greater interest has been Freedom From Religion Foundation's constitutional challenge. As of this point, FFRF has won in District Court and government has appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
Covering the parsonage issue has made me some of my best blogging buddies including Robert Baty and Reverend William Thornton.
Philip A. Driscoll, et ux. v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. No. 27
Foxes have holes, and birds of the air nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Robert Harris's book 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die is a fantastic blend of humor and wisdom. One particular piece of advice which actually caused me to change my regular behavior was:
Don't accumulate nonfunctional pens.
Following the form of most of his advice he describes a person who reaches into a jar of ballpoint pens, tests the pen to see if it works, finds it doesn't and then puts it back. What do you say about such a person ? Don't be one of them !
Check your pens and let go of the ones that no longer serve you - even if it is painful. Keep only the ones that you can reach for with confidence. This way when you feel the urge to write or draw or doodle, you can get started without needless delay and frustration.
There is another piece of advice, one that I generally don't follow. Although he is referring to sports on TV, I think it has broader implications. That advice is :
Don't be a passive spectator
When you're watching two teams, always pick one to pull for. Cheer and boo. Laugh and cry. Eat and drink. And experience not just the game, but the competition.
In my blog, I have adopted an attitude of - It is what it is. Before long it will be something different. Deal with it. Other tax bloggers seem to enjoy advocating for one side or the other. The Tax Court's decision in Phillip A. Driscoll has motivated me to finally do some serious booing. The issue is the parsonage exclusion. I have previously written about an effort to have the exclusion declared unconstitutional. I think my post on the constitutionality of the parsonage exclusion took a pretty balanced view.
The case of Phillip Driscoll is another matter. Reverend Driscoll heads Mighty Horn Ministries. The ministry is not apparently classified as a church since it files Form 990. If you look at the website, it strikes one more as being a record label, albeit one that specializes in religious music. Since 2007, perhaps coincidental with the Reverend's visit to a federal facility because of a misunderstanding about taxes, the organization has been officially known as Phil Driscoll Ministries. Their 990 is available on guidestar.org (registration is free). In 2009, it had gross receipts in excess of $3,000,000. Officers salaries were fairly modest $77,440 to President Phillip Driscoll, $5,700 to Jamie Driscoll the VP and $31,700 to Lynn Driscoll. The Reverend Phil, however, had expense accounts and "other allowances" totalling $283,032. This nicely ties with the item in other expenses labelled parsonage. If you know anything about airplanes, take a look at the depreciation schedule on page 21 of the adobe file and you can let me know if I should get cranked up about that. The mission of Phil Driscoll Ministries (a/k/a) Mighty Horn is:
Spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to approximately 500,000 people annually through concerts and other ministry opportunities.
As occasionally happens to me further research has shown that a case I have found of interest is actually a late act in old news. Reverend Driscoll did time in 2007 for tax evasion. At least one commentator believes the real villain in that case was the IRS. In his post Welcome Home Phil, James Paris speculated that Phil was being persecuted for his Christianity. You can find similar comments in the Christian music realm of the blogosphere. Apparently Reverend Driscoll is quite a celebrity with even Bill Clinton trying to help him avoid prison time. It will be interesting to see if this tax court decision is seen as something of a vindication of him.
At issue were parsonage exclusions covering the years 1996 to 1999 totalling just over $400,000. The largest being $195,778.72 in 1999. This was not Reverend Driscoll's entire parsonage allowance. This was the portion attributable to his second home (for parts of 1998 it was "second homes"). Just a little bit of tax history here. The parsonage exclusion goes back to the Revenue Act of 1921. It excludes from income the rental value of a residence provided to a "minister of the gospel". This exclusion might have been rendered redundant by the subsequent creation of an exclusion from income for lodging provided to employees for the convenience of the employer. In the classic "parsonage" or, if you are Catholic, "rectory", situation, presumably the convenience of the employer standard would be met. It's convenient for the congregation to have the minister living next to the church in a house maintained by the church. Maybe not so convenient for the minister's spouse or the minister's kids.
Here is where we get into the tension between the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. Some denominations and congregations might think, perhaps with some encouragement from the clergy, that it is not such a good idea to have the minister live in a house owned by the church. Since you wouldn't want to treat them differently than other denominations or congregations the parsonage exclusion was expanded to include "rental allowances". There is no dollar limitation on such rental allowances and no limit on the relationship that they can bear to taxable compensation. The money just has to be spent on providing housing. If the housing allowance is used to pay deductible expenses they are still deductible.
The question the tax court had to decide in this case was whether a parsonage allowance should be allowed with respect to a second home. In 2002, the Code was amended to limit the exclusion to the fair rental value of a home. Prior to that it would presumably have been legitimate to have a $500,000 parsonage exclusion that was used to be buy a house. Since the parson would have basis in the house it could be subsequently sold for $500,000 with no taxable income. The case which prompted the Code change was not nearly that extreme.
Interestingly the question of whether the parsonage allowance can apply to a second home has never been addressed before. The court was left to try to figure out what Congress was up to when it first enacted this thing in 1921. They didn't get very far:
One commentator has suggested that the in-kind exclusion grew out of “the general respect held by Congress and the public for churches,”
What they came down to was statutory construction. The language in Section 107 says "provide a home", but when you go to the definition section of the Code you find :
In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, unless the context indicates otherwise— words importing the singular include and apply to several persons, parties, or things;
So providing a home includes providing two or, in this case for part of the time, three places to live. And of course Reverend Driscoll in 2007 had free housing provided by the federal government, although that was just for himself.
I really don't think this type of thing does the cause of religion much good. I doubt that it is good for the clergy to have their own special tax gimmick that while appearing modest can be gamed to exclude from income tax as much as 100% of above average incomes in some cases. If 107 were simply repealed it would not cause the taxation of clergy who are provided a place to live by their congregations. They would be covered by the convenience of the employer exception even if the residence had a theoretically high rental value (conceivably a bishop's residence or the like).
There is another option, which as far as I know is original with me, although whenever I think that it turns out that I am wrong. Code Section 134 excludes from income a number of military benefits including a housing allowance. A rationale similar to that for the parsonage exclusion can be made here. Members of the military are frequently and perhaps more so traditionally provided with housing at a place convenient to the employer, think Fort Apache. It is reasonable that a cash allowance in lieu of that benefit would be exempt. From a policy viewpoint the military housing exclusion is less troubling, since there is nothing disturbing about the federal government deciding who is entitled to it (Unless you are a far out militia type). Perhaps more significantly, since it is paid by the federal government, it is limited. The allowance varies by whether the service member has dependents, by region and as you might expect rank. If you look at the table, though, you will see that the variation by region is the most dramatic with junior enlisted ranks in Alaska having housing allowances greater than a general in Alabama. My recommendation is that the parsonage allowance be limited to no more than the highest military allowance anywhere. You could come up with something more complicated than that. The important thing is that there be some dollar limit.
Dropping back to my normal persona as amoral tax advisor congregations and ministers might consider whether there is an opportunity here to further pump up housing allowances. I don't know how many clergy members own multiple homes, but I will predict that as word of this decision gets out, the number will increase. A cautionary note. The Tax Court was divided on this opinion.