What is a church? While the answer may seem obvious, a definition of the term "church" is a surprisingly complex task. For example, does a church include a church-operated school or nursing home, a denomination, a religious organization that conducts commercial activities, a small group of persons who meet in a home for religious study, a parachurch ministry, or a religious publisher? These are but a few of the issues that have confronted the courts.
The term "church" appears several times in the Internal Revenue Code. However, the term is never defined. Presumably, Congress fears that any definition will be either too expansive (and encourage tax fraud) or too restrictive (and hurt legitimate churches). There is little doubt that the proliferation of "mail order churches" has caused the courts and the IRS to interpret the term "church" more narrowly. The IRS has created a list of 14 criteria that characterize a church. As you will see, these criteria are extremely narrow, and would not apply to many legitimate churches (including the original churches described in the New Testament Book of Acts).
The definition of the term "church" is also relevant in the contexts of zoning and property tax exemptions. Can a church that is located in an area zoned for residential and church uses build a school on its property? Can it construct an activities building? A softball field? A radio station? Does a state law that exempts churches from property taxes apply to church schools? To a vacant lot owned by a church? To a church-owned religious camp ground? Such illustrations demonstrate the importance and complexity of the question addressed in this chapter. These are the very kinds of issues that have generated heated litigation, pitting churches against government agencies.
Since many state and federal laws use the term church, it is important to define the term with precision. To illustrate, the Internal Revenue Code uses the term church in many contexts, including the following:
The Internal Revenue Code occasionally uses the term church in connection with the term minister. For example, service performed by a duly ordained, commissioned, or licensed minister of a church is exempt from federal employment taxes, Id. at § 3121(b)(8). unemployment taxes, Id. at § 3309(b)(2). income tax withholding requirements, Id. at § 3401(a)(9). and self-employment taxes (if a valid waiver has been timely filed). Id. at § 1402(e). Despite these many references to the term church, the Internal Revenue Code contains no adequate definition of the term. See generally Gaffney, Governmental Definition of Religion: the Rise and Fall of the IRS Regulations on an "Integrated Auxiliary of a Church," 25 VAL. U. L. REV. 203 (1991); Whelan, "Church" in the Internal Revenue Code: The Definitional Problems, 45 FORDHAM L. REV. 885 (1977); Worthing, "Religion" and "Religious Institutions" under the First Amendment, 7 PEPPERDINE L. REV. 313 (1980); Note, Toward a Constitutional Definition of Religion, 91 HARV. L. REV. 1056 (1978).
In addition, federal law (1) imposes penalties on anyone who "intentionally defaces, damages, or destroys" a church or who "intentionally obstructs, by force or threat of force, any person in the enjoyment of that person's free exercise of religious beliefs, or attempts to do so"; 18 U.S.C. § 247. Damages to church property must exceed $10,000. The penalties for violating this section include fines and a prison sentence of up to life (if a death results), up to ten years (if "serious bodily injury" results), or up to one year in all other cases. Section 247(d) specifies that "no prosecution for any offense described in this section shall be undertaken by the United States except upon the notification in writing of the Attorney General or his designee that in his judgment a prosecution by the United States is in the public interest and necessary to secure substantial justice." (2) prescribes the position and manner of display of the United States flag in church buildings; 4 U.S.C. § 7(k). (3) imposes penalties upon persons who cross state lines to avoid prosecution for damaging or destroying church buildings, or who refuse to testify in any criminal proceeding relating to such an offense; 18 U.S.C. § 1074. (4) describes the benefits available to churches under the National Flood Insurance Act; 42 U.S.C. § 4013(b)(1)(C). and (5) provides for the employment of chaplains and the conduct of religious services at military installation. 10 U.S.C. § 6031.
Many state and local laws contain specific references to the term church. Examples include laws pertaining to zoning, nonprofit corporations, state and local revenue, the use of church buses, the desecration of church buildings, the sale of intoxicating liquors within a specified distance from a church, building codes, property ownership, workers compensation, and interference with church services.
Every law that uses the term church raises definitional questions. As one court observed:
[The term church] can mean an organization for religious purposes. It can also have the more physical meaning of a place where persons regularly assemble for worship … . [I]f "church" is interpreted to mean a place where persons regularly assemble for worship, does this include merely sanctuaries, chapels, and cathedrals, or does it also include buildings adjacent thereto such as parsonages, friaries, convents, fellowship halls, Sunday schools, and rectories? Guam Power Authority v. Bishop of Guam, 383 F. Supp. 476, 479 (D. Guam 1974).
The courts have attempted to define the term church in various ways. Some of the definitions include:
Courts most often are called upon to define the term church in the context of tax exemptions and zoning ordinances. Does a particular organization qualify for an exemption from federal income taxes or state property or sales taxes?
May an organization construct a new facility in an area zoned exclusively for residential and "church" use? The definitions the courts have given to the term church in these two contexts will be considered separately.