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Larry Crain, president of the Brentwood, Tenn.-based Church Law Institute and a longtime First Amendment lawyer, said government attorneys might be right.
"They make an interesting point," he said. "If they [atheist foundation officials] apply for the exemption, they might get it."
But the government’s argument misses the point, Gaylor said. She’s not filed a tax return claiming the allowance and doesn’t know if she would accept one if the government allowed it.
"That’s not what we are after," she said.
The foundation also is suing the government over several nonprofit laws that govern churches. They want government to enforce rules that ban pastors from giving political endorsements and to require churches to file the same Form 990 tax returns as other charities.
Gaylor said the government should not give religious groups any special treatment.
But Eric Stanley, senior counsel of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, said the First Amendment gives churches and other religious groups special privileges. He said that too much government regulation of churches would interfere with religious freedom.
Stanley believes that the Justice Department has called the foundation’s bluff in the parsonage lawsuits.
"What is really going on is that they don’t like the housing allowance," he said. "The foundation wants the government to be hostile to religion."
Gaylor is amused by at least one part of the government’s recent legal filings. She said the parsonage allowance was first put in place in the 1920s to help ministers to fight against "godlessness."
"They can’t now reward the Freedom From Religion Foundation to fight for godlessess."
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