Business Law Legal Topics Social Media

When Is a Church Not a Church?

The issue of what constitutes a church for the IRS tax exemption purposes has recently been considered in a novel context: Is a congregation that holds only internet and radio worship services a church entitled to IRS tax benefits? The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit found that the “electronic ministry” did not meet the IRS’s definition of a church.

To get the IRS tax benefits of being a church, an organization —  which includes synagogues, mosques, and similar congregations — must have at least some of the following (IRS Pub 1828, Tax Guide for Churches and Religious Organizations):

  • Distinct legal existence;
  • Recognized creed and form of worship;
  • Internal ecclesiastical government;
  • Formal code of doctrine;
  • Distinct religious history;
  • Membership not affiliated with another church or denomination;
  • Ordained spiritual leaders who have completed a prescribed course of study;
  • Literature of its own;
  • Congregation that meets regularly;
  • Regularly held religious services;
  • Program of religious instruction for young people;
  • Established place of worship; and
  • Schools for the preparation of ministers.

The IRS looks at all the facts and circumstances in deciding whether an organization qualifies as a church. An organization need not show all of these factors, and no single factor is determinative.

The Federal Circuit panel considered these IRS criteria, as well as the associational test, which defines a church as an organization whose members meet regularly for organized worship. Quoted in a article, Arthur Rieman, managing attorney of the Law Firm for Non-Profits, said the ruling “leaves open the question of whether worship services that use modern versions of Internet chat rooms would constitute significant association to meet the association test.”

With congregating and association being defined differently in the age of social media, this issue is unlikely to disappear.

On the IRS treatment of churches, check out CEB’s Advising California Nonprofit Corporations §3.33 (3d ed Cal CEB 2009).

© The Regents of the University of California, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

3 replies on “When Is a Church Not a Church?”

Then there is also the issue where a church meets the criteria but is active in the political arena. There have been some cases around that, right?

I suppose this affects OurJewishCommunity, an online synagogue.

The blog says that the IRS states that an org “must have at least *some* of the following” (emphasis added). How many? Which ones? As with so much in the law – and religion – it’s not an open-and-shut case and is open to judicial – and clerical – interpretation.

Eventually the IRS will have to catch up with the fact that many people now live more on the internet than they do in meat space.

Some time ago I filed an application for someone who wanted to operate a university on-line, and the IRS said that it needed the bricks and mortar to be a school. Two years ago, I filed a similar application for another client and received approval. I expect that, ultimately, an online church will be found to qualify.

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