1. Thanks for starting the conversation, Emma. I’d love to hear how other Rabbis handle parsonage.

    Because it did not feel right to me, I decided not to claim it when taking my position as a Hillel rabbi. Ironically, I actually do use my home more and more these days — to host shabbat dinners and Jewish holiday festivities for students, most recently a Tu biShvat seder and Purim party. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it feels like a vestige from a time when clergy played a different role in American society and I’m not sure why I should be the one to benefit. Friends and colleagues have criticized my choice, on the grounds that if I am allowed a tax break, I should take it, even if it seems strange. But that argument does not feel strong enough to me, and I continue to struggle with why clergy should have this break when others also use their homes for work.

    I wonder how many other rabbis do not claim parsonage - I’m not the only one, right?

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  2. This is a great topic, and one that has fascinated me for a long time as a legal scholar. The theory behind the parsonage exemption, though, has an important wrinkle.

    As a matter of general tax law principle, employees who are required to live in employer-provided housing for the benefit of the employer aren’t taxed on the value of that benefit. Lighthouse keepers are the classic example (if there are any left). Under this principle, some clergy (such as Catholic priests who live in rectories) could claim a “parsonage exemption” even without any special statutory provision for clergy.

    American legal and political tradition, though, tends (not always but often) to dislike treating different religious groups unequally simply based on their different theological beliefs or ecclesiastical structures, even when that unequal treatment might be rationally justifiable. So Congress extended the parsonage exemption (which Catholic priests and some other clergy would get automatically simply based on general tax law principles) to other clergy.

    The point of the exemption, in other words, is not mainly to favor religion but to avoid an uncomfortable potential inequality. I can cite a fair number of other examples of this fascinating instinct for religious equality working in the law.

    (Whether this might make Rabbi Moore feel any more inclined to take the exemption is for the Rabbi to decide.)

    Perry Dane
    Professor of Law
    Rutgers School of Law

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