When John Steinbruck, a retired ELCA pastor, was encouraged to voice his support for the tax break allowing clergy to deduct most housing costs from their taxable income, he refused. "Why should [clergy] be some special exemption?" he asked.
John Kapanke, president of the ELCA Board of Pensions, urged the church to back a bill preserving the 81-year-old tax break after a San Francisco circuit court challenged its constitutionality (May 2002, page 31). Congress swiftly approved the bill, which was signed by President Bush May 20. Kapanke cited concerns that taxing clergy housing allowances would unfairly affect working and retired clergy who depend on the break to compensate for lower incomes and pensions.
But Chuck Lutz, former director of the Office of Church in Society for the American Lutheran Church, an ELCA predecessor, thinks religious institutions should pay the difference and "stop looking to taxpayers to shoulder that burden." He urges the ELCA to seek solutions to church workers' economic problems by re-examining its compensation system.
Steinbruck worries that the exemption contributes to a "case of laryngitis" in the church's prophetic voice against abuses in government spending and economic injustice. "If we take seriously the example of Jesus," he challenges, "clergy should expect no benefits from Caesar greater than what is received by the least privileged whom we serve."
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