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Atheist group takes on clergy tax break

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- A tax-exemption for clergy members who live in free housing provided by churches violates the U.S. Constitution, an atheist group says in a lawsuit.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, has filed a court challenge to the exemption, arguing it discriminates against other non-profit organizations, The (Nashville) Tennessean reported. The tax break applies to clergy living rent-free in church housing, who do not have to pay income tax on the foregone rent, and to ministers who do not live in church housing and can deduct their housing expenses.

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"We think the law is rotten at the core," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation's co-president. "It is not constitutional, it is not fair, and it is not necessary."

Dan Busby, who runs the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, acknowledges the law can be abused. But he told The Tennessean he believes it makes up for some of the financial disadvantages of being a minister, especially the many clergy who are considered self-employed.

Busby said he does not expect the foundation's lawsuit to make any changes since Congress responded to similar litigation in 2002 with legislation to keep the housing tax exemption.

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