Atheist Student Presses VP Biden on Tax Exemptions for Religious Clergy

PITTSBURGH - Today Vice President Joe Biden spoke to a group of students at the University of Pittsburgh. Cate Laskovics, a senior philosophy major and self-described atheist, asked Biden how the administration justifies religious clergy housing tax exemptions—especially in a time of economic upheaval.

Laskovics is the President of the Secular Alliance at the University of Pittsburgh (www.pghthink.com) and the Secular Coalition for America’s 2011 summer intern.

Biden responded, “When you talk about how can you justify this in times of economic difficulty, because in relative terms it's incredibly small relative to other exemptions.”

Laskovics said Biden’s answer didn’t address the real issue.

"Too often the privileging of religion in our tax code is overlooked. In a time of economic hardship, we need to reexamine why some religious groups receive special tax exemptions,” she said. “Vice President Biden said, 'it's such a small amount’, but that's not the issue. It's about fairness. We live in a country that is supposed to have a government that stays neutral on matters of religion. That we specifically have a government that is subsidizing ministers of the gospels' income is unfair--and I don't think [the vice president] addressed that unfairness."

This marks the second time since July that the administration has been directly questioned by members of the secular community about policies that favor religion. In July, Amanda Knief, government relations manager for the Secular Coalition for America, pressed President Obama at a town hall meeting about his failed campaign promise to end employment discrimination by faith-based organizations that accept taxpayer funding.

See the Secular Coalition’s Issue Statement about Eliminating Taxpayer Funding for Clergy.

Here, the transcript of Laskovics’ Q&A:

Laskovics: Hi, in the current tax code there exists an exemption for members of the clergy -- they don't have to pay taxes on housing allowances, and this exemption has been shown to be abused. In the current financial crisis, how can you justify forcing taxpayers to subsidize religious leaders?

Vice President Joe Biden: Easily. In so far as there is abuse, if there is particular abuse, then they lose the exemption. But the notion that in the United States of America, under the Equal Protection clause, we are not able and it does not make no sense to see to it that whether they are Muslim clergy, or Jewish clergy, or Catholic clergy, or Protestant clergy, that they should not have the exemption. In the sense of the same thing as a charitable exemption, seems to us, seems to me, to make sense. You are right. You are right. There are clear cases of abuses that have existed. And there has been a reluctance where there have been shown to be clear cases of abuse, to in fact, to act. We should act when there is a clear case of abuse. Second point is, and this is not a justification of continuing the exemption, because I think the exemption exists on its merit, but the second point I was making is the total number of exemptions, my guess would be, of all the clergy in United States of America, based on their housing allowances, probably adds up to less than the top 1/10 of 1 percent making the tax breaks by a factor probably of five. So it is, doesn't mean it didn't make sense and shouldn't be dealt with, but A. in the last part of your question, when you talk about how can you justify this in times of economic difficulty, because in relative terms it's incredibly small relative to other exemptions. There are a lot of others I'd rather go for first, before I go for that one.

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