The term church is found, but not specifically defined, in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). However, the use of the term church also includes conventions and associations of churches as well as integrated auxiliaries of a church. The term church is not used by all faiths; however, in an attempt to make their publications easy to read, the IRS uses church in its generic sense as a place of worship including, for example, mosques and synagogues.
“While some of these [criteria] are relatively minor, others, e.g. the existence of an established congregation served by an organized ministry, the provision of regular religious services and religious education for the young, and the dissemination of a doctrinal code, are of central importance. The means by which an avowedly religious purpose is accomplished separates a “church” from other forms of religious enterprise… At a minimum, a church includes a body of believers or communicants that assembles regularly in order to worship.”
In analyzing whether a religious organization may properly be characterized as a church for purposes of Section 508(c)(1)(A), the IRS considers whether the organization has at least some of the following characteristics. These attributes of a church have been developed by the IRS and by court decisions:
- a distinct legal existence,
- a recognized creed and form of worship,
- a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government,
- a formal code of doctrine and discipline,
- a distinct religious history,
- a membership not associated with any other church or denomination,
- an organization of ordained ministers,
- ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies,
- a literature of its own,
- established places of worship,
- regular congregations,
- regular religious services,
- schools for religious instruction of the young,
- schools for the preparation of its ministers, and
- any other facts and circumstances that may bear upon the organization’s claim for church status.
While the IRS does not provide specific guidance as to how many of the 14 points must be met for the organization to qualify as a church, it is generally accepted that a minimum of 11 points be met.*
The IRS makes no attempt to evaluate the content of whatever doctrine a particular organization claims is religious, provided the particular beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held by those professing them and the practices and rites associated with the organization’s belief or creed are not illegal or contrary to clearly defined public policy.
*In 2012, attorney Doron Samuel-Siegel, Professor of Law, Legal Practice at University of Richmond School of Law, prepared a guide for church qualification that required organizations not part of a traditionally recognized religious denomination meet a minimum of 11 points of the 14-point church test. In 2020, attorneys for Family Research Council, which reclassified as an Association of Churches with the IRS the same year, made sure FRC met the generally-accepted 11 out of 14 points of the IRS church test when submitting Schedule A of the Form 1023.