Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Edward A. Zelinsky

The constitutionality of the parsonage allowance

Under Internal Revenue Code Section 107(2), “ministers of the gospel” can exclude from the federal income tax cash payments from their congregations and other religious employers for such ministers’ housing. The IRS and the courts have held that this income tax exclusion applies to clergy of all religions including rabbis, cantors, and imams. Income tax-free housing payments to clergy are commonly denoted as “parsonage allowances.”

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The House Appropriations Committee and the Johnson Amendment

he Committee on Appropriations of the US House of Representatives, in a so-called rider to the pending federal budget bill, has proposed significant procedural restrictions on the IRS’s ability to enforce the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment is the provision of the Internal Revenue Code which prevents all tax-exempt institutions (including churches) from participating in political campaigns.

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Taxing or exempting the church

Religious entities pay more taxes than many people believe. Moreover, churches and other religious organizations are treated quite diversely by different taxes and by different states. Sometimes churches and other religious entities are taxed in the same fashion as secular organizations and persons are.

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Why the Supreme Court should overrule Quill

In ‘Quill Corporation v. North Dakota’, the US Supreme Court held that, under the dormant Commerce Clause of the US Constitution, the states cannot require out-of-state vendors to collect sales taxes because such vendors lack physical presence in the taxing state. As internet commerce has grown, Quill’s physical presence test has severely hampered the states’ ability to enforce their sales taxes since the states cannot obligate out-of-state internet firms to collect the taxes attributable to their respective sales.

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My advice to Mr. Bezos: pay some tax

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, has asked on Twitter for advice about the use of his fortune for philanthropy. My advice is that Mr. Bezos should pay some tax. Contemporary attention to philanthropy is largely attributable to the admirable work of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, Jr. The Giving Pledge, Buffett and Gates have commendably encouraged rich individuals in the US and abroad to devote much of their wealth to charity.

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Presidential pensions as broken windows

The complex (and often tragic) saga of post-presidential retirements is well-known. Some presidents, such as Herbert Hoover, were independently-wealthy and thus spent their years after the White House in economic security. Other presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson, lived only briefly after their service in the Oval Office. Yet other former presidents experienced great financial difficulties in retirement.

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Storm Stella and New York’s double taxation of nonresidents

The physical aftermath of Storm Stella is now over. The tax aftermath of Storm Stella, however, has just begun. How can a winter storm cause taxes? Because New York State, under its so-called “convenience of the employer” doctrine, subjects nonresidents to state income taxation on the days such nonresidents work at their out-of-state homes for their New York employers.

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Filling Supreme Court vacancies: political credentials vs. judicial philosophy

In the current, hyper-partisan environment, relatively few individuals publicly supported the confirmations to the US Supreme Court of both Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I know because I am one of these lonely souls. Now, the same considerations which led me to support their confirmations lead me to support the confirmation to the Court of Judge Neil Gorsuch.

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The right way to amend the Johnson Amendment

President Trump, reiterating the position he took during the presidential campaign, has reaffirmed his pledge to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”The Johnson Amendment is the portion of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code which prohibits tax-exempt institutions from participating in political campaigns.

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Why the Logan Act should be repealed

Congress should repeal the Logan Act. Modern, globalized communications have destroyed any remaining rationale for this outdated law. The Logan Act today potentially criminalizes much routine (and constitutionally-protected) speech of US citizens. During the presidency of John Adams, Dr. George Logan, a private citizen, engaged in freelance diplomacy with the government of revolutionary France.

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Three myths about the Electoral College

Since the election, we Americans have engaged in a healthy debate about the Electoral College. My instincts in this debate are those of an institutional conservative: Writing our Constitution from scratch today, we would not have designed the Electoral College as it has evolved. However, institutions become embedded in societies. To further this debate, consider these three contentions often heard today about the Electoral College.

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The three fallacies of the popular vote

In light of Secretary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, prominent voices call for replacing the Electoral College with a direct, nationwide vote for President. Among the distinguished individuals now urging abolition of the Electoral College are former Attorney General Eric Holder and outgoing Senator Barbara Boxer. Would Secretary Clinton or President-elect Trump have won in 2016 in a direct, nationwide election?

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Warren Buffett’s taxes: the more complicated narrative

In the second presidential debate, Donald Trump indicated that Warren Buffett had deducted, for federal income tax purposes, net operating losses in a manner similar to Trump’s deduction of his net operating losses. In response, Buffett, an outspoken supporter of Hillary Clinton, released a summary of Buffett’s 2015 federal tax return. Buffett’s intended message was clear: Trump didn’t pay federal income taxes; I did.

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Churches and politics: why the Johnson Amendment should be modified and not repealed

Speaking before the Family Research Council, the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, called for a repeal of the “Johnson Amendment.” The Johnson Amendment is part of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as schools, hospitals, and churches from participating in political campaigns. The Republican Party’s 2016 platform echoes Mr. Trump.

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Why does the Democratic Party want the Cadillac tax abolished?

Democratic Party platform for 2016 repudiates a major provision of Obamacare – but no one has said this out loud. In particular, the Democratic Party has now officially called for abolition of the “Cadillac tax,” the Obamacare levy designed to control health care costs by taxing expensive employer health plans. Tucked away on page 35 of the Democratic platform is this enigmatic sentence: We will repeal the excise tax on high-cost health insurance and find revenue to offset it because we need to contain the long-term growth of health care costs.”

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Elie Wiesel: the Hillel of our time

I first met Elie Wiesel in the summer of 1965. Wiesel’s book Night had been translated into English five years earlier. Night was just beginning to be recognized in English-speaking countries. Wiesel was not yet then the impressive speaker he was soon to become. As he addressed the audience that summer about the horrors of the Holocaust, Wiesel was diffident to the point of shyness.

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