One Church Receives an Unexpected Tax Bill
Why churches must understand unrelated business income.

A church in Mount Vernon, Washington, thought it didn't owe taxes. But that changed after a recent state audit, when the state said the church owed $180,000 in back taxes and penalties, according to a TV news station.

The church charges admission to a small amusement center. All profits support the church's ministry. Previously, the church thought that since these admission fees supported the ministry, taxes were not owed. The state's department of revenue disagreed, although it lowered the amount owed to $58,000 after reviewing the case and waived all penalties and interest if the church can commit to paying.

The church is now racing to raise the money, hoping the community and members can help cover the costs.

Michael Batts provides a comprehensive, easy-to-understand analysis of how unrelated business income, and the possible taxes owed from it, works for churches in a recent Church Law & Tax Report article (now offered as a download). In part of the article, he explains:

Unrelated business activities in a church may include:

  • Operating a public restaurant;
  • Operating a revenue-generating parking lot;
  • Selling non-religious items in a bookstore (such as computers, cosmetics, and popular secular books);
  • Providing administrative services to other unrelated organizations for a fee;
  • Conducting travel tours that are not adequately religious or educational in nature; or
  • Selling advertising in the church's newsletter.

A church is permitted to conduct an insubstantial amount of unrelated business activity. If a church engages in a substantial amount of unrelated business activity, the church could lose its tax-exempt status under Section 501( c )(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.

Besides useful analysis, Michael includes numerous hypothetical examples from church situations to illustrate how different rules do–or don't–apply. Nearly every church will benefit from the insights offered in Does Your Church Owe Taxes on Alternative Revenue?

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."


Displaying 1–4 of 4 comments

Samuel Ogles

November 09, 2015  9:45am

Hello Christ First UMC--In Ch. 12 of the 2015 Church & Clergy Tax Guide, Richard Hammar clarifies that according to a 2001 IRS decision, rental income from communications towers (including cell phone towers and antennas) are NOT exempt from the unrelated business income tax on the basis of the rental of real estate exception. You can read more of the nuances and ruling in the Tax Guide: Thanks, Samuel

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October 07, 2015  9:52am

What are the taxable implications to a church if a cell phone company puts up their antennae on a church steeple and pays the church a monthly lease payment?

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Ginger Silverman

September 18, 2013  12:42pm

We plan to provide administrative services to other churches. Those that are church plants that share our name and are simply another satellite campus, UBIT would clearly not exist. But, what about a church plant that started out as a satellite campus and grew to a point they became a separate church with it's own identity in name and EIN? Though there remains a relationship between the two churches, there is a distinction and no legal responsibility one for the other. Does UBIT exist at that point for the fees generated for administrative services?

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September 18, 2013  11:51am


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