What’s a “church” and how does the IRS decide?

What counts as a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, can be decided in many ways. Synagogue, the category closest to … Continued

What counts as a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, can be decided in many ways. Synagogue, the category closest to my heart, is simply a Greek word for a gathering, and the Hebrew term beit kenesset means the same thing.

But in a country which grants special privileges, including tax exemptions, to what the IRS broadly calls “churches,” it is not only history or the faithful who decide what counts as a church, but also the federal government. And the definition our government uses is both fascinating and provocative.

According to the IRS manual, Section 7.26.2.2.4(4), there is a 14 point test to determine if a religious organization can qualify as a “church”. These criteria are:

1. A distinct legal existence,

2. A recognized creed and form of worship,

3. A definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,

4. A formal code of doctrine and discipline,

5. A distinct religious history,

6. A membership not associated with any other church or denomination,

7. An organization of ordained ministers ministering to their congregations,

8. Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study,

9. A literature of its own,

10. Established places of worship,

11. Regular congregations,

12. Regular religious services,

13. Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young, and

14. Schools for the preparation of ministers.

According to blogger Chuck Rubin, an attorney and certified tax expert, while the government does not necessarily strictly require that all 14 of these criteria be met in order for a group to qualify as a church, they do represent the basic parameters which our government uses to make that determination. Do these criteria make sense?

First, we might ask if religious institutions should be granted any special exemptions or prerogatives to begin with. Perhaps not surprisingly, I would say yes. There is abundant evidence, based on the importance and positive impact of religious communal membership, which renders it a public good worthy of special consideration.

Second, religious institutions are not alone in being granted special privileges with regard to taxation. Many secular organizations benefit from similar exemptions, but qualify on other bases. So as long as it is not religious organizations alone which have access to these benefits, there is no issue with running afoul of the wall which separates church and state.

Whether or not the government should be using theological and liturgical measures to qualify these institutions as deserving of the already mentioned benefits is also an interesting question. Should the federal government really be defining what counts as a “recognized creed and form of worship”? Recognized by whom?

Should the IRS be deciding what counts as “a regular congregation” or “regular religious services?” What counts as regular?

But most interesting here is whether or not a religious community really needs to meet these 14 criteria to be a church in the 21st century. Are these the elements which define religious community for you or for those you know? Are they the markers of a religious community in which you might be interested?

As Americans, we persist in our religious attachments and spiritual striving. Some of us see that as encouraging and others view it as a sign of our ongoing foolishness. Either way, I suspect that the IRS’s understanding of what qualifies as a church doesn’t begin to capture for many of us, what we mean by church or why we stay connected to one if we choose to do so.

How would you define “church”? What points would you use to determine if something is a legitimate religious institution, especially in a nation where the definition cannot simply be “those who share my personal beliefs and/or practices”?

Section 7.26.2.2.4(4) of the IRS manual clearly respects both the importance of religious institutions to most Americans, and also respects the need for religious diversity, but I wonder if it could not benefit from an overhaul which reflects the ever-widening range of what counts as a church for so many of us.

About

Brad Hirschfield An acclaimed author, lecturer, rabbi, and commentator on religion, society and pop culture, Brad Hirschfield offers a unique perspective on the American spiritual landscape and political and social trends to audiences nationwide.
  • FarnazMansouri2

    Rabbi Hirschfield writes:First, we might ask if religious institutions should be granted any special exemptions or prerogatives to begin with. The violation of the Establishment clause is evident in “conscience” clauses, health care reform, and the denial of Equal Protection to gay Americans. On health care, the RCC “bishops” shamelessly blamed the nuns for the passage of health care reform in a shape not entirely to the bishops’ liking. IN other words, they “tacitly” stated that American Health care is a Vatican issue.The dole must be ended for Religious institutions, and it must be ended quickly.What we need on this issue is a national referendum.

  • paulhume

    The tension – and it may be necessary and even healthy tension – between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause is the story of the state and religion, certainly in the last few generations, at least.The Free Exercise Clause must have equal weight with the Separation Clause, or else the First Amendment just becomes, simultaneously, a club with which to beat one’s enemies and a personal grooming aid with which one can titillate one’s own prejudices, tarted up in a trumpery guise of civic virtue. This seems to me to be the case whether the abuse of the First Amendment proceeds from an explicit dominionist, who would make his religion THE state religion, or a militant secularist, who sees sedition in any statement from a church (at least any with which he disagrees) which actually discusses its doctrinal position in connection with living in the world.The exercise of civil rights – the right of citizens to vigorously defend the enforcement of ALL of the First Amendment – is a terrible area in which to appeal to a national referendum.

  • EddietheInfidel

    I agree with Rabbi Hirschfield’s statement that religious institutions should be exempt from taxation, provided they comply with the 14-point test administered by IRS rules.Since the inception of our country, religious institutions have been granted a special status with regard to taxation, largely in keeping with the Establishment clauses guaranteed by our Constitution. “Render unto Caesar….”, and all that.While I’ll admit that certain religious groups may at times try to influence the political direction of our country, Constitutional law limits their ability to effectively change how we all live our lives. They can lobby all they want; adherence to Constitutional law will ultimately limit what they can do.Imposing taxes on churches, synagogues and mosques would essentially elevate these religious organizations to the position of “taxpayer”, which would then require Congress to consider their specific interests in direct violation of the Establishment clause.The American Revolution was fought on the principle of “taxation without representation”; tax religious groups and they’ll be demanding seats in Congress.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Separation of Church and state does not, by definition, admit of degrees. (See dictionary definitions under “separate.”)Well-heeled militant religionists, whether donning lace, gilded crowns, and red shoes or simple charcoal gray three-piece suits, ignore the Constitution and hold the Congress hostage.Millions of Americans–believers and secularists–justly find this situation lawless and unacceptable. (The extent of the religionists “tart[ting] up,” the heavenly words on which their hellish notions fly, blah, blah, and blah are equally irrelevant to the foregoing.

  • FarnazMansouri2

    Stated simply, purple prose does not an argument make, Paul Hume. Read Paul Hume for edification on how to make an argument.

  • gonnagle

    Surely the simplest solution is to not give anyone tax exempt status. Profits earned by some of these churches are obscene and would have Jesus turning in his grave (which by the way, some think is in Kashmir).

  • WmarkW

    I was once an officer in a non-governmental community organization with an annual budget of about $50k, of which about half went immediately to our national headquarters. Each year, we’d submit an IRS form detailing our finances to show we were a non-profit organization. A useful starting point would be how the IRS treats churches differently from any other NPO. If no one takes home total compensation out of line with what a salary for identical work in a fair competitive market would provide, then that’s all fine. It’s when a megapreacher collects a $150k salary (Ok), but is provided use of an enormous mansion and private jet by the congregation, that we need to estimate what the true total compensation is.

  • usapdx

    As we see so many violations of the rules of the tax exampt law’s rules which does not stop thoes groups from claiming tax exampt when they violated the law’s rules, is it time for congress to rewrite the tax exampt law or just repeal it. The I.R.S. should know what these tax exampt groups income for the given year in case the I.R.S. needs to go after a party that wrongly claims tax exampt.

  • Secular

    What needs to be done, is to make the contributions to the churches by individuals non-tax deductible. And all the commercial enterprises that a run by the skydaddy houses should be required to pay taxes on the earnings, before the profits are ploughed back to the churches.

  • ZZim

    “Should the federal government really be defining what counts as a “recognized creed and form of worship”?”Yes.”Recognized by whom?”The federal government.

  • Sajanas

    What would be more interesting is how you would define a ‘cult’ in contrast with a ‘church’. You can see some cynical organizations like Scientology and some branches of Christianity that heavily abuse their non-profit status to make their founders rich men. Certainly most churches are fine, but there needs to be some way of punishing those people who embezzle from their own congregations. Perhaps, to be granted the church tax break, they need to have their books open to everyone. My former church had its budget decided on by its members, and even though a church doesn’t need to be that democratic, I don’t think it unreasonable to require them to show how they use collection plate money. Even more interesting is the idea of how much the religions spend on things that aren’t so clear cut. I’ve seen beautiful, beautiful buildings built for various religions, but would you give to a charity that had Notre Dame as its HQ? Surely, the church is not quite the same as a charitable non-profit. Lots of that money in the collection plate goes to maintaining lovely buildings and doing stuff for their own members. It not wrong, really, but I routinely see charities that have administrative costs eat 80 or 70% of the funds collected blasted in the press. If churches are just big club houses, why should they get tax protections equal to charity organizations that actually help the community?

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