By Clifford M. Marks
God may be listening, but the IRS isn’t — or at least, not if you’re preaching online.
The federal tax agency won a victory Monday for its decision not to grant church status to a religious organization that primarily conducts its worship services via radio and internet, reports the National Law Journal.
Why would it matter? Becasue non-church non-profits are subject to greater regulatory scrutiny and oversight than are churches.
The Foundation of Human Understanding, “based upon Judeo-Christian beliefs and the doctrine and teachings of its founder,” Roy Masters, had appealed the IRS classification to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where a three-judge panel waded into the murky waters of church classification precedent.
Despite what Federal Circuit Judge William Bryson said was a decided dearth of guidance about how to apply the “church” label, the panel largely looked to the associational test, which requires that members meet regularly for organized worship. Not good news for the Foundation of Human Understanding.
“The fact that all the listeners simultaneously received the Foundation’s message over the radio or the Internet does not mean that those members associated with each other and worshiped communally,” Bryson wrote.
Neither the foundation, its lawyer, nor the IRS returned a request for comment from the National Law Journal.
But never fear, digital disciples. The ruling may well leave room for chat room worship to qualify for the church moniker, non-profit attorney Arthur Rieman tells the NLJ.
But Rieman does worry that if the IRS doesn’t clarify its classifications, non-profits conducting board meetings electronically could run afoul of the agency.
“If my clients’ boards of directors can meet that way, is it much different than allowing a church congregation to congregate that way and hold a worship service?” he asked. “The IRS is going to have to address that sooner or later.”