South Side, Chicago pastor fights discriminatory lawsuit

Atheist lawsuit targets religious leaders who serve low-income communities 

For Immediate Release: December 13, 2016 
Media Contact: Melinda Skea | media@becketlaw.org | 202-349-7224   

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chicago-based Bishop Ed Peecher filed in court today to protect ministers and churches against a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization trying to prevent churches from providing housing benefits available to other non-profit organizations and businesses. 

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 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, it is proven that everyone benefits.  

“My church and the community are my lifeblood,” said Bishop Ed Peecher of the Chicago Embassy Church. “The hungry, the lost, the lonely – they are my family. I spend my days serving them, praying, talking and offering hope and an alternative to violence. This is my job, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” 

The founder of a predominantly African American congregation, Bishop Peecher devotes his life to his community through outreach to decrease gang violence, mentor at-risk youth, and feed and clothe the homeless in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. This work is possible because the church supports Bishop Peecher through a small housing allowance, permitting him to focus on and live minutes from his congregation and surrounding communities in need. 

A federal tax law known as the parsonage allowance lets churches provide tax-exempt housing or housing allowances for their ministers to live near their congregations. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) argues that unless the IRS explicitly bars faith organizations from accessing this benefit, it will be in violation of the Establishment Clause. But churches shouldn’t be treated differently than other secular organizations who receive the same kind of tax treatment.  

“The same tax-exempt housing allowances exist for various employees like hotel managers, those transferred overseas and military personnel whose jobs require them to live in a certain proximity to their workplace,” said Hannah Smith, senior counsel at Becket Law. “Ministers who live in the communities they serve shouldn’t be left out in the cold.”  

Becket filed a motion to intervene today on behalf of 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. In 2014, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a diverse group of Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, and Muslim organizations that have been able to thrive and effectively serve their communities because of the parsonage allowance.  

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becketattorney, please contact MelindaSkeaatmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7224.Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.   

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Becket Law is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditionsand has a 100% win-rate before the United StatesSupreme Court. For over 20 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, includingBuddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians(read morehere).