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Church or Religious Organization

Last modified: June 30, 2022
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DEFINITION

 The IRS determines that an organization meets religious purpose based on two main guidelines:

  • That the particular religious beliefs of the organization are truly and sincerely held.
  • That the practices and rituals associated with the organization’s religious belief or creed aren’t illegal or contrary to clearly defined public charity.

To be classified as a church, an organization has to prove additional criteria is in place for the IRS to grant that designation. The IRS has 14 points they consider in whether a religious organization will be further classified as a church. Though all 14 points need not be met, there are several which will need to be met for the IRS to award determination as a church. The term “church” is used by the IRS to encompass mosques, temples, synagogues and other forms of religious organizations.

BEST PRACTICE

Primary criteria which must be met to be defined by the IRS under 501(c)(3) as a church are:

  • A recognized creed and form of worship. While listed ahead of having a distinct religious history, the two really go hand in hand. This is the manner in which worship services take place with established practices related to the religious beliefs.
  • A distinct religious history. What does this mean? This is an established religion that has been in existence and has history to show it as such. This is not a new religion. New religions will be classified as religious organizations to establish a history and following.
  • Ordained ministers ministering to the congregation (selected after completing prescribed courses of study). Technically, this meets two of the 14 criteria, but it is usually the case that the primary religious leader will be the ordained individual within the organization.
  • Established places of worship. This demonstrates that the organization provides worship services in the same location(s) on a regular basis. The public is aware that this is location of services per the church’s website, social media, and signage at the location.
  • Regular congregations. This shows the IRS that on a regular basis the organization has regular attendees to its worship services. Without a sufficient number in regular attendance, the IRS will consider the organization as a ministry, studying its religious beliefs with small groups. Regular congregations do not include those limited to members of one family. These need to be individuals from the public, attending services for religious teachings.
  • Regular religious services. This shows the IRS that the organization has regularly scheduled and promoted religious services for the public to attend. While many churches conduct services on a weekly basis, every other week, and even once per month may be sufficient to meet this criteria, especially when considering the other criterion to be a church.

RESOURCES

Publication 557

Instructions to Form 1023

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