If you ask the IRS what constitutes a church, there’s a 14-point checklist (that Megareverend John Oliver so gracefully highlighted) that functions as a useful guide. But the IRS also says it’s a “combination of these characteristics” that determines whether a church gets tax-exempt status, suggesting that churches don’t need to meet all the criteria.
Right now, in New Hampshire, there’s an ongoing debate over whether the Church of the Sword (COTS) is a legitimate church.
COTS was denied a parsonage exemption last year because it was deemed not-a-church by the town of Westmoreland, and a lower court agreed, in part because COTS is non-theistic and meets in a brew pub. (They believe in “self-sufficiency and arming oneself.”)
We’re at the point now where lawyers for COTS will be arguing in front of the New Hampshire Supreme Court today in defense of the new religion.
Reason‘s Brian Doherty explains COTS’ argument (as stated in their legal filings):
… the Town of Westmoreland’s definition of religion excludes all non-theistic religions such as Daoism (also spelled Taoism) which does not have “a single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message, such as the gospel or the four noble truths. Rather Daoism bears witness to a history of continuous self-invention within a vast diversity of environmental contexts.”….
The Town chose to define “religion” very narrowly to those having a single spiritual leader and giving reverence to a supernatural power regarded as creating and governing the universe. They have ignored another definition of religion provided within the same definition quoted above in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language which defines religion as “[a] cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.” In so narrowly tailoring its definition of “religion” the Town of Westmoreland discriminates against all non-theistic religions.
If the First Church of Cannabis is tax-exempt in Indiana and the Satanic Church of the IV Majesties is tax-exempt in Oklahoma, why not this group, too?
While COTS isn’t explicitly an atheist group, the NH Supreme Court’s ruling is worth paying attention to. You may recall that the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS years ago for being denied a tax-exemption… and their case was ultimately halted at the Appeals Court level because the judges said they didn’t have proper standing.
You could make the argument that the IRS should allow all these groups to be tax-exempt, or they need to make the criteria for becoming a church much, much stricter. But if they did that, it could mean stripping some current Christian churches of their tax-free status, and you know conservatives would freak out if that ever happened.
(Thanks to Randall for the link)