The paradoxical position comes in response to a lawsuit by the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which seeks to end the parsonage tax break granted to priests, ministers, rabbis and other clergy by the U.S. government. The tax break allows them to claim part of their income as a tax-free housing allowance.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, who receives a $15,000 housing stipend from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, is suing the federal government because she has to pay taxes on that money while "ministers of the gospel," as the law defines priests, do not.
In response, the federal government said rather than agree to end the parsonage exemption it could be extended to Gaylor because she is the leader of a religious movement -- albeit one that does not believe in God.
Legal maneuvering aside, Gaylor told The (Nashville) Tennessean the government has missed the point of her lawsuit -- not to mention the fundamental difference between her atheist group and a religious order.
"We are not ministers," she said. "We are having to tell the government the obvious -- we are not a church."
But government lawyers and some scholars said the argument isn't as cut and dried.
Taoism and Buddhism are recognized religions that don't recognize a deity and their leaders are afforded the tax break. So belief in God, the government argues, can't be the defining trait of a religious movement.
"Plaintiffs may not presume that a law's reference to religion necessarily excludes beliefs that are specifically non-theistic in nature," the government argued in a motion to dismiss the foundation's suit.
Scholars agreed, atheist groups mirror religious groups in some ways. Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., said the government is partially correct atheist groups share some traits with organized churches.
He compared devout members of a religion to devout sports or music fans, noting they share much of the same behavior -- common customs, a system of belief that elevates a star athlete or singer to a god-like level. But the comparison, Zuckerman said, breaks down when you consider whether sports fans really think an athlete has supernatural powers.
The lawsuit has not been resolved though Zuckerman said it's unlikely a court will strike down the parsonage tax break.