by Travis Weber
November 14, 2014
Thankfully, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Freedom from Religion Foundation v. Lew, refused to let stand a decision which had declared the clergy housing tax allowance unconstitutional.
This case began when the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the U.S. government alleging that the government grants tax benefits based on religion. In a quite ill-advised lower court ruling, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb held that the FFRF could properly bring the lawsuit and that the tax allowance violated the Constitution. The case was then appealed to the 7th Circuit.
To understand how ridiculous the FFRF’s claim is, we must understand a little bit about the doctrine of “standing” to bring a lawsuit in federal court.
As the 7th Circuit explained, to bring a lawsuit, a party must show:
(1) they were injured in a concrete and personal way,
(2) that the injury can be fairly traced to the defendant’s action, and
(3) that the injury is likely to be remedied by a favorable judicial decision.
In addition, the court explained, merely being offended at the government’s action does not give one grounds to sue. Obviously, the fact that an atheist group is upset at other religious entities getting some tax relief for their ministers does not “injure” the atheist group at all. There is simply no personal injury present.
The 7th Circuit agreed, noting that the FFRF could not be injured by being denied any such tax exemption because the group never even asked for it.
The court also noted the FFRF’s own difficulty in arguing for liberal standing rules – almost anyone would have standing to sue for virtually any reason! This would result in over-clogged and over-worked federal courts, which, as they sift through heaps of frivolous suits, would have to take time away from truly meritorious suits where parties have been actually injured. To say this would be an injustice is an understatement.
The 7th Circuit concluded as follows:
“To summarize, plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the parsonage exemption. A person suffers no judicially cognizable injury merely because others receive a tax benefit that is conditioned on allegedly unconstitutional criteria, even if that person is otherwise “similarly situated” to those who do receive the benefit. Only a person that has been denied such a benefit can be deemed to have suffered a cognizable injury. The plaintiffs here have never been denied the parsonage exemption be-cause they have never requested it; therefore, they have suffered no injury.”
Nevertheless, it’s troubling to think the FFRF’s claims could even be considered more seriously had it asked for and been denied the exemption. Such a possibly should serve to highlight the way the suppressors of any religious expression in public life manipulate our legal system in wasteful and unproductive ways.
The FFRF has hardly been “injured” here by any reasonable understanding of that term. Courts should take note of this when the FFRF is back before another judge claiming some other mental or psychological “injury.”