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How the IRS Defines “Church”

IRS Nameplate In Front Of Accountant Calculating Tax

The term “church” is included in the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) but is not specifically defined.  Instead, the term church is used more as a catchall for places of worship and includes synagogues, mosques, and other entities.  The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also uses the term “church” to include conventions, associations, and integrated auxiliaries of a church, and the parallel entities for other religions that do not use the term “church.”  Whether an organization qualifies as a church for the purposes of the IRS depends on a variety of factors.  A dedicated Illinois nonprofit attorney can help your religious entity qualify as a church under the tax code.

Characteristics of a church

The IRS does not have a single definition of a church.  Instead, whether an organization qualifies as a church will depend on a variety of characteristics inherent to churches, according to IRS guidance and court decisions.  Churches that have these characteristics and otherwise satisfy the requirements of section 501(c)(3) may benefit from tax-exempt status.

Relevant characteristics of a church include:

  • Distinct legal existence
  • A recognized creed and form of worship
  • Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
  • A formal code of discipline and doctrine
  • A distinct religious history
  • An organization of ordained ministers
  • Regular congregations and religious services
  • Established places of worship
  • Literature of its own
  • Schools for the preparation of its members
  • An established process for ordaining ministers

The IRS will evaluate the presence or absence of these characteristics as well as other facts and circumstances to determine whether an entity qualifies as a “church” under the tax code.

Churches are distinguished from other “religious organizations”

The IRC and the IRS distinguish churches from other religious organizations.  Religious organizations are not places of worship but are entities that are still dedicated to the “study or advancement of religion.”  These other entities may include nondenominational ministries, interdenominational and ecumenical organizations.  Such entities may apply for tax-exempt status under 501(c)(3).

Sticking to church activities

As we have previously discussed, in order to maintain 501(c)(3) status, a church must stick to appropriate, tax-exempt activities.  In the case of a religious organization, the entity must focus on religious enlightenment and activities.  Wading into politics, for example, can threaten the status of a religious organization.

While a church or church official is permitted to have an opinion on certain political topics, the church may not undertake activities that can be classified as “political activity” or “lobbying.”  Holding fundraising events for specific candidates, for example, would be prohibited.  General non-partisan voter education activities or voter registration drives, on the other hand, are not prohibited.  Your nonprofit attorney can help you vet your activities and publicly-espoused opinions so as to avoid any challenges to your status.

Get Help from Experienced Chicago Church Law Attorneys

If your church, religious organization, or other non-profit faces legal issues in Illinois, get a knowledgeable and reasoned opinion on how to proceed by contacting the Chicago church and non-profit attorneys at MacDonald, Lee & Senechalle in Hoffman Estates at 847-310-0025 and in Des Plaines at 847-298-5030.

By submitting this form I acknowledge that form submissions via this website do not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information I send is not protected by attorney-client privilege.

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