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Good news: Wisconsin ministers’ housing allowance case appealed by government

DALLAS — A federal judge's decision that declared the ministers' housing allowance unconstitutional has been appealed by government lawyers who argue the allowance should be upheld. The appeal will be heard by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

The November decision by federal Judge Barbara Crabb — an appointee of President Jimmy Carter — was "stayed" pending appeal, meaning it had no immediate impact on ministers. The court challenge to ministers' housing allowance was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).

The appeal is welcome news for all ministers and provides an opportunity for the federal appeals court to uphold the long-standing statute that allows churches to provide a tax-free housing allowance to ministers. A 2010 ruling by Crabb that ruled the National Day of Prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment was overturned by the Seventh Circuit in 2011.

"Pastors and others in ministry are facing challenges here in the United States that would have been unthinkable as little as a decade ago" said Tim Head, GuideStone executive officer for denominational and public relations services and a lawyer before being called into ministry. "While we welcome news of the government's appeal, we recognize this case is far from settled, and we remain engaged to advocate for the housing allowance benefit."

GuideStone, as part of a long-standing coalition of ministerial benefit boards, will seek to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the government's position that the ministers' housing allowance is constitutional.

Ministers should consult with the annual tax guide made available at www.GuideStone.org/taxguide and GuideStone's housing allowance information at www.GuideStone.org/housingallowance to ensure they are properly documenting housing allowance as part of a church business action and reporting it appropriately on their income tax returns.

The housing allowance case is only one example of GuideStone’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the pastors, churches and ministries it serves. In 2013, GuideStone filed litigation to block enforcement of the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate against non-exempt ministry organizations served by GuideStone. GuideStone and close to 200 ministry organizations received a preliminary injunction in December, protecting them from the contraceptive mandate. No trial date has been set in that case.

"We live in a world that is not as receptive to the ministry of the church or of ministers in general, as the world in which we grew up," GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said. "Rather than discouraging us, that fact serves to encourage our employees to continue to seek out opportunities to advocate on behalf of our more than 200,000 participants across this country."

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