When can a ministry count as a church?…… | News and reports
The research team counting all nondenominational congregations in America added no marks to its tally when a conservative Christian think tank in Washington, DC declared itself an association of churches.
The reclassification might be significant for the IRS, but for the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB), it doesn’t matter. Literally: The Family Research Council (FRC) will not be included in the US Religion Census, which is scheduled for release this fall.
“We are looking for non-denominational congregations/communities of worship, many of which may not even be registered or 501(c)(3) entities,” said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research and leader of the team. including non-denominational churches. for the 2020 US Religious Census. “The Family Research Council as well as evangelists, singing groups, mission agencies, resource providers, etc. are stripped even if they claim to be non-denominational. We are only looking for churches.
The FRC, a family values organization spun off from Focus on the Family in 1992, is among a seemingly growing number of para-church organizations that have petitioned the IRS to reclassify it as a church or association of churches. Focus on the Family made the switch in 2016, along with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).
Other evangelical organizations that have been reclassified include Cru, Gideons International, Voice of the Martyrs, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), most major televangelists, Liberty Counsel, American Family Association, Frontiers, Ethnos 360/New Tribes Mission, The Navigators, and World Vision.
Thumma’s team did not include any of them in its count of 39,430 nondenominational churches in 2020, an increase of nearly 4,000 congregations and 6.5 million people from the 2010 religious census.
However, the IRS considers them churches for tax purposes.
Some Christian organizations that have always been considered para-church ministries have told the IRS that they should be considered, legally, churches. Others have begun to make this argument over the past five years.
In 2016, an executive at tech company Mozilla was publicly humiliated for a donation he made to a political organization opposed to same-sex marriage. He was forced to resign, raising concerns among conservative Christian groups that donors could face heavy social consequences for unpopular charities.
“This was done primarily to protect the privacy of our donors,” a Focus on the Family spokesperson told Ministry Watch in 2020. “In recent years, there have been several occasions where nonprofit organizations – both right and left – have been targeted for information, including the names and personal details of their donors.
Unlike many political organizations, religious nonprofits are not required to release the names of individual donors. But they are required to complete and release most of the IRS Form 990, which requests information about the board of directors, management, and top-paid employees.
990 may also require disclosure of other information. The latest 990 from the BGEA, covering 2014, included an explanation of the evangelical association’s policies on first-class airfare. It also contained information about Billy Graham’s health costs, housing provided to longtime music manager Cliff Barrows, and a $100,000 supplement on top of the base salary paid to Franklin Graham.
“You don’t have to be Chicken Little to be a little worried,” Steve McFarland, World Vision’s chief legal officer, told CT in 2014. “Where’s it going to stop? As a religious community, do we want to continue to answer more and more questions? »
World Vision voluntarily continued to submit 990 forms to the IRS, despite being classified as a church. Other organizations, like RZIM, have chosen not to disclose financial information or even the names of board members. Most, like the BGEA, voluntarily shared financial information on their websites, but kept certain details, such as salaries and allowances, private.
Reclassification can also protect Christian organizations from audits. The government has special rules limiting the power of IRS agents to initiate a church investigation, restricting investigations once they begin, and prohibiting repeat investigations for five years.
The BGEA was audited in 2012. Franklin Graham said Barack Obama’s administration was targeting the ministry to punish it for running ads urging voters to support “candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel”. A BGEA spokesperson said The Washington Post that being reclassified as a church made the organization feel better protected from government interference.
Critics, however, say these nonprofits are abusing the system to avoid scrutiny. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said ProPublica he sees this as a problem.
“Form 990 filings provide valuable, and often the only, information about a tax-exempt organization’s income and expenses,” Whitehouse said. “But lax enforcement at the IRS and DOJ further encourages gambling, which leaves the door wide open for enterprising black money schemes to further exploit the system.”
Politically active groups tend to frown when asking for reclassification. The ProPublica report, for example, points out that FRC leader Tony Perkins has claimed credit for pushing the Republican Party to the right and that the organization is organizing the Pray Vote Stand Summit, “one of the most important gatherings and most influential for those on the Christian right”.
As a church, the FRC cannot endorse applicants, under IRS rules, but it can engage in advocacy.
Even observers who are basically sympathetic to these evangelical nonprofits have raised concerns about the lack of transparency. Ministry Watch president Warren Cole Smith was previously vice president of mission advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is not opposed to evangelicals getting involved in politics or promoting a family values agenda. Yet he is concerned about the lack of transparency and lack of credibility when para-churches claim to be churches.
“I don’t believe many of the organizations that have applied for the church exemption are actually churches,” Smith said. ProPublica. “And I don’t think they think they’re actually churches.”
According to the IRS, however, they are, based on 14 “marks” for what the tax revenue agency considers a church.
The IRS had a stricter definition. Prior to 1970, IRS rules stated that a church was any organization engaged in religious worship and “priestly functions”, the details of which would be specified by the religious organization.
In 1974, the IRS considered clarifying the meaning of “priestly duties”. A proposed definition – never adopted – stated that “the activities of the organization must include the conduct of religious worship and the celebration of life cycle events such as births, deaths and marriages”.
In the end, however, the government decided not to legislate a single definition of “church.” As the Supreme Court explained in St. Martin v. South Dakota Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1981, “the great diversity of church structure and organization among the religious groups in this country…makes this impossible”.
The IRS, instead, ended up using 14 points, apparently based on a 1959 IRS ruling on whether or not the Salvation Army was a church. Number 1 is a “separate legal existence”. Other marks include a written belief or summary of beliefs, regular worship services, separate church government, trained ministers, and religious instruction for children.
However, an organization does not have to meet all of the criteria, and IRS guidelines also state that other factors may be considered.
“The 14 criteria are clearly vague and inadequate,” wrote Richard R. Hammar, editor of Church Law & Tax, a publication of Christianity Today. “Some apply exclusively to local churches, some don’t. And the IRS does not indicate how many criteria an organization must meet to be classified as a church. The vagueness of the criteria necessarily means that their application in a particular case will depend on the discretionary judgment of a government employee.
Hammar says the IRS’ main concern has been so-called “mail-order churches” — individuals who get ordinations through the Postal Service, start a one-person church, and then try to avoid paying their taxes. . At least a dozen people tried to do so in the late 1970s, including a nurse, a boilermaker and the son of a Presbyterian minister. In each case, the courts decided they were tax avoidance schemes and not churches, based on established criteria.
The IRS has accepted nonprofits seeking reclassification, even when arguments that they fit the definition of a church may seem unusual. Focus on the Family, for example, argued that it had an established place of worship in its combined chapel and cafeteria, called the “chapellerie”. And while the ministry’s attorney acknowledged that all of his minister-staff were encouraged to participate in churches other than Focus on the Family, he wrote that “participation in more than one congregation is an integral part of the idea of Christian brotherhood”.
The FRC argued that as an association of churches it did not have individual members, but affiliated congregations, and that the organization itself had monthly church meetings.
The IRS approved both organizations’ requests to reclassify as churches. The 2020 U.S. Religious Census, slated for release this fall, won’t count them, however.
ASARB enumerators who count non-denominational churches have had to wrestle with the definition of church over the years. The counting became more complicated as they observed the emergence of multisite churches and discovered congregations that met in different places each week or developed other experimental means of gathering.
Thumma and his team decided that the simplest definition would be “a worshiping community.” For each church on their tally, they found evidence that the congregation met in the real world, was truly not tied to a denomination, and “offered worship or was a community of worship,” Thumma said.
So for them, Christian think tanks with monthly prayer services don’t count.