Pastor, Church & Law


Chapter 5

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:

  1. charitable giving limitations1 I.R.C. § 170(b)(1)(A)(i).
  2. church pension plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA)2 Id. at §§ 410(d), 414(e).
  3. church “retirement income accounts”3 Id. at § 403(b)(9).
  4. deferred compensation plans4 Id. at §§ 414 and 457.
  5. ineligibility of churches for using an “expenditure test” for determining permissible lobbying activities5 Id. at § 501(h).
  6. unrelated business taxable income6 Id. at § 512.
  7. unrelated debt-financed income7 Id. at § 514.
  8. exemption from the necessity of applying for recognition of tax-exempt status8 Id. at § 508(c).
  9. treatment of church employees for social security purposes if church waives employer FICA coverage9 Id. at § 1402(j).
  10. unemployment tax exemptions10 Id. at § 3309(b)(1).
  11. exemption from filing annual information returns11 Id. at § 6033(a)(2)(A).
  12. exemption from filing returns regarding liquidation, dissolution, or termination12 Id. at § 6043(b)(1).
  13. restrictions on the examination of financial records13 Id. at § 7605(c).
  14. election to waive the employer’s obligation to pay social security and Medicare taxes on nonminister employees14 Id. at § 3121(w).
  15. 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,15 Id. at § 3121(b)(8).unemployment taxes,16 Id. at § 3309(b)(2).income tax withholding requirements,17 Id. at § 3401(a)(9).and self-employment taxes (if a valid waiver has been timely filed).18 Id. at § 1402(e).Despite these many references to the term church, the Internal Revenue Code contains no adequate definition of the term.19 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”;20 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;21 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;22 18 U.S.C. § 1074.(4) describes the benefits available to churches under the National Flood Insurance Act;23 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.24 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?25 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:

    • A body or community of Christians, united under one form of government by the profession of the same faith, and the observance of the same rituals and ceremonies.26 McNeilly v. First Presbyterian Church, 137 N.E. 691 (1923).
    • An organization for religious purposes, for the public worship of God.27 Bennett v. City of LaGrange, 112 S.E. 482 (1922).
    • The term [church] may denote either a society of persons who, professing Christianity, hold certain doctrines or observances which differentiate them from other like groups, and who use a common discipline, or the building in which such persons habitually assemble for public worship.28 First Independent Missionary Baptist Church v. McMillan, 153 So.2d 337 (Fla. App. 1963), quoting Baker v. Fales, 16 Mass. 488 (1820).
    • A church consists of its land and buildings, its trustees and its congregation (the people who more or less regularly attend its religious services), as well as of its faith, doctrine, ritual and clergy.29 Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church v. Adair, 141 N.Y.S.2d 772 (1955).
    • At a minimum, a church includes a body of believers or communicants that assembles regularly in order to worship. Unless the organization is reasonably available to the public in its conduct of worship, its educational instruction, and its promulgation of doctrine, it cannot fulfill this associational role.30 American Guidance Foundation v. United States, 490 F. Supp. 304 (D.D.C. 1980).
    • Among some ten definitions of “church” given by the lexicographers, two have gotten into the law books generally. One is “A society of persons who profess the Christian religion.” The other is “The place where such persons regularly assemble for worship.”31 Church of the Holy Faith v. State Tax Commission, 48 P.2d 777 (N.M. 1935).
    • A church is a building consecrated to the honor of God and religion, with its members united in the profession of the same Christian faith.32 Wiggins v. Young, 57 S.E.2d 486 (Ga. 1950).
    • A Christian youth organization having no official connection with any denominational church body was a church since it “proclaims Christianity, conducts services for the worship of the Christian God and provides for the administration of the Christian sacraments to its assembled members.33 Young Life Campaign v. Patino, 176 Cal. Rptr. 23 (Cal. App. 1981) (an excellent discussion of the definition of church).
    • The ordinary meaning of the term contemplates a place or edifice consecrated to religious worship, where people join together in some form of public worship.34 In re Upper St. Clair Township Grange, 152 A.2d 768 (Pa. 1959).
    • The word “church” … includes at a minimum any religious organization which, as the whole of its activities, advocates and teaches its particular spiritual beliefs before others with a purpose of gaining adherents to those beliefs and instructing them in the doctrine which those beliefs comprise.35 Christian Jew Foundation v. State, 653 S.W.2d 607 (Tex. App. 1983) (an excellent discussion of the term church, rejecting a proposed definition by the state of Texas as unconstitutionally preferring some churches over others).
    • The term “church” means a voluntary organization of people for religious purposes who are associated for religious worship, discipline and teaching and who are united by the profession of the same faith, holding the same creed, observing the same rites, and acknowledging the same ecclesiastical authority.36 State v. Lynch, 265 S.E.2d 491 (N.C. App. 1980).
    • The “plain, ordinary, and popular meaning of the word church includes a building in which people assemble for the worship of God and for the administration of such offices and services as pertain to that worship, a building consecrated to the honor of God and religion, and a place where persons regularly assemble for worship.”37 Calvary Baptist Church v. Coonrad, 163 Neb. 25, 77 N.W.2d 821 (1956).
    • “A building consecrated to the honor of a religion would likewise include buildings in which people assemble for non-Christian worship, such as a mosque, a synagogue, or a temple.”38 Latenser v. Intercessors of the Lamb, Inc., 553 N.W.2d 458 (Neb. 1996).
    • A church … in general terms, is an assemblage of individuals who express their adherence to a religion.39 The Way International v. Limbach, 552 N.E.2d 908 (Ohio 1990).
    • Where a particular word employed in a statute is not defined, it will be accorded its common, ordinary, plain, everyday meaning. “Church” is defined as “a body or organization of religious believers.”40 Crooks v. Director, 2007 WL 2482637 (Ohio App. 2007), quoting Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed. 2004).
    • The term “church” is defined as 1. a building for public worship and especially Christian worship; 2. the clergy or officialdom of a religious body; 3. a body or organization of religious believers, as the whole body of Christians, a denomination, or congregation; 4. a public divine worship; 5. the clerical profession.41 TE-TA-MA Truth Foundation-Family of URI, Inc. v. World Church of the Creator, 2002 WL 126103 (N.D. Ill. 2002), quoting Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed. 1999).
    • A church is a place where “an act, process, or instance of expressing veneration by performing or taking part in religious exercises or ritual” occurs.42 North Pacific Union Conference v. Clark County, 74 P.3d 140?(Wash. App. 2003), quoting Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1969).
    • 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.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold 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." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay