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Religious Liberty Clinic Cited in Appellate Victory on Clergy Housing Allowances

On March 15, in the case of Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the constitutionality of allowing clergy to exclude church-provided housing allowances from their taxable income. In its ruling, the court referenced data provided in an amicus brief filed by the University of St. Thomas Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic. St. Thomas Law alumna Kacie Phillips '18 was the primary author of the brief as a 3L, with editing and oversight from Professor Thomas Berg, who leads the clinic.

Kacie Phillips

Kacie Phillips

"We relied on case studies to demonstrate how medium-sized churches would be affected by invalidation," said Phillips in a recent interview with Minnesota Lawyer newspaper. "We argued that this housing allowance is deeply embedded in American society. We did research into various surveys and detailed what the consequences of invalidation would be. Our brief shows that 61 to 81 percent of congregations already rely on the housing allowance as part of their ministerial compensation packages, and so the brief shows that 61 to 81 percent of these congregations would be harmed by invalidation and would be required to restructure their compensation packages."

The 7th Circuit agreed. In its decision, the court cited the Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic's brief, which estimated that, "of the United States’ 384,000 congregations, 200,000 to 300,000 provide a housing allowance to their ministers under 26 U.S.C. § 107(2)."

"The housing-allowance exclusion is consistent with the First Amendment because it ensures equal tax treatment for congregations, often small ones, that don’t own their own clergy housing – and another reason is that it has become deeply embedded in American society,” Berg said. "The panel paid attention to the large consequences we predicted, for congregations of all faiths. That's exactly what we wanted, and it is very gratifying."

The Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic is one of 13 law clinics at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The clinic’s primary clients are national civil liberties organizations and national religious organizations. Each year St. Thomas law students apply to participate in the clinic and, under the guidance of Berg, write appellate briefs – primarily amicus curiae briefs – in cases involving religious liberty in the U.S. Supreme Court, lower federal courts and state appellate courts. Through readings as well as practice, students learn basic principles of religious liberty, conscience protection and appellate writing.