Tax Court Refuses to Officially Sanction IRS Criteria for Determining What is a Church

Tax Court recently reversed an IRS determination that a nonprofit religious corporation was not a church.

The Tax Court recently reversed an IRS determination that a nonprofit religious corporation was not a church.

In reaching its decision, the Tax Court applied the following fourteen criteria developed by the IRS for determining whether a particular organization is in fact a church :

  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;
  8. ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies;
  9. a literature of its own;
  10. established places of worship;
  11. regular congregations;
  12. regular worship services;
  13. Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young;
  14. schools for the preparation of ministers.
  15. The IRS has stated that no single factor is controlling, and that all fourteen criteria may not be relevant in every case. The Tax Court declined to adopt the criteria as a controlling test, preferring to treat them as a useful guideline. The court's refusal to officially sanction the IRS criteria should be applauded, since the criteria are far too restrictive and ambiguous to be used in making the critical determination of church status.

    For example, few if any local churches would meet the seventh, ninth, and fourteenth criteria, since these ordinarily would pertain only to religious denominations. In addition, many newer, independent churches would fail the first and fifth criteria and could also fail the second, third, fourth, sixth, and eighth.

    It is therefore entirely possible for a legitimate church to fail as many as ten of the fourteen criteria. The early Christian churches depicted in the Book of Acts easily would have failed a majority of the criteria. Such overly restrictive and ambiguous criteria are of little help in deciding if a particular organization is in fact a church, and should never be endorsed by the courts.

    Foundation of Human Understanding v. Commissioner, 88 T.C. _____(1987).

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