Atheist leaders meet the same IRS criteria of being ministers as other clergy leaders and so should receive the same tax exempt status for housing allowances as ministers, according to a Department of Justice filing for an upcoming hearing.
The Tennessean reports in "Feds grant religion tax break to atheists" that this legal argument came about because of atheist group challenges to a "parsonage exemption" tax law and the fact that "The Internal Revenue services does require, among other things, that a 'minster' be seen as a spiritual leader and provide services for a religious organization. Belief in a deity is not required."
Atheist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation(FFRF) have opposed the "parsonage exemption" in IRS Section 107 for a number of years, noting that religious leaders are able to qualify for a housing allowance exemption that the non-religious cannot obtain, and which they claim is unfair and should be discontinued. God Discussion recently interviewed FFRF's co-president Dan Barker on the topic, and retired IRS appeals officer Robert Baty joined the discussion.
FFRF requested a parsonage exemption in an effort to bring about a formal challenge to the law. FFRF filed a formal complaint in Wisconsin in September 2011 with the aim of challenging the fairness of the law. The Department of Justice has agreed to hear the atheist leaders' case and in brief requesting a motion to dismiss the suit, argued that atheist leaders are in fact not currently excluded from the parsonage exemption.
Don Byrd at the Baptist Joint Committee For Religious Liberty seemed interested in the concept, saying that "if atheism is just another religion, that leaves everyone insulted pretty equally, right?" and asked whether instead of doing away with the housing allowance for clergy, which appears unlikely, it should instead be extended to other nonprofit leaders.