On November 13, 2014, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an atheist group challenging a tax-exempt housing benefit only available to clergy lacked standing to bring the suit because members of the atheist group could not demonstrate that they had suffered an injury as a result of the clergy tax-exemption.

The co-presidents of the Freedom From Religions Foundation ("FFRF"), Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, had argued that the law was not fair because they were denied the benefits, but the Seventh Circuit found that they had never actually been denied a tax exemption, because, in the words of the court, "the plaintiffs were never denied the parsonage exemption because they never asked for it. And absent any personal denial of a benefit, the plaintiffs' claim amounts to nothing more than a generalized grievance" about the tax code provision allowing the ministerial exemption.

Last year, Wisconsin federal judge Barbara Crabb had ruled in favor of the FFRF on grounds that the provision of benefits for members of the clergy that was denied for others was a violation of the establishment clause.

During the initial phases of the lawsuit, in 2012, the government had sought dismissal of the case, arguing that the FFRF plaintiffs would not have standing in the case until they had tried to obtain the exemption on their tax returns and was denied. Claiming the exemption would require them, in the words of the statute, to claim that they were "ministers of the gospel." Crabb had allowed the case to continue, "[b]ecause it is clear from the face of the statute that plaintiffs are not entitled to the exemption, I see no reason to make their standing contingent on the futile exercise of making a formal claim with the IRS." She wrote that "there is no plausible argument that plaintiffs could make that they qualify as Ďministers of the gospel,' so it would be pointless to require plaintiffs to jump through the hoop of filing a claim to prove that they are not entitled to the exemption."

Groups and individuals who challenge governmental financial decisions that they perceive to be in violation of the Establishment Clause must overcome the difficult hurdle of demonstrating that they have standing to bring these cases to court. If the plaintiffs lack standing, the courts will not address whether these cases themselves have merit. In this case, the question of whether the ministerial housing exemption actually violates the Establishment Clause remains up for debate – a debate that will remain academic until challengers figure out how to have their day in court.

 

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Other cases:

In 1981, Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged a plan by the U.S. Sec­re­tary of Defense to close a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal and donate part of the hospital's land free-of-charge to a Christian plan. The U.S. Supreme Court found that Amer­i­cans United lacked stand­ing to sue because the trans­ac­tion involved a gov­ern­ment agency's deci­sion to dis­pose of a par­cel of prop­erty and did not involve the tax­ing and spend­ing power.  (See Val­ley Forge CC v. Amer­i­cans United (1981))

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Freedom from Religion Foundation did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of funds paid by the Bush administration to religious groups as a function of the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives. (See Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007))

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