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When the collection plate goes around at weekly services, America's charitable but bankrupt worshippers must now abstain. A federal judge has reluctantly ordered debtors to repay their credit-card bills first.

Judge Robert E. Littlefield Jr. of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York has ruled that charitable or religious contributions are no longer considered a necessary living expense for those filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

"This change effectively closes the door for debtors who are above the median income from deducting charitable contributions as an expense," Littlefield wrote in his Aug. 28 opinion.

The judge was interpreting a law that went into effect last October which, in effect, deems "tithing" acceptable only in very limited circumstances, such as for ministers who must donate as part of their contract.

Littlefield said the 2005 law trumps the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act, signed in 1998 by President Clinton, which allowed tithing under the bankruptcy code.

More than 2 million Americans filed for bankruptcy protection in 2005 and hundreds of thousands are expected to do the same by the end of 2006, according to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.

Henry Sommer, president of the group, said the legislation favors the credit industry at the expense of religious liberty.

"Some people who need bankruptcy protection may hesitate to file if they are not allowed to tithe and would then be denied the relief they might need," Sommer said. "It makes you choose between spiritual necessity and physical necessity,"

The opinion was handed down in the case of Frank and Patricia Diagostino of Massena, N.Y., who filed chapter 13 bankruptcy last March. When reporting ...

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