Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Can an online community be a church ? IRS says "No"!

A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit puts an interesting spin on the online community/church question.  According to their decision in the case Foundation for Human Understanding verses the US, a religious organization that primarily holds their worship services on the  Internet (or radio), did not meet the Internal Revenue Code's definition of a "church."  That means they are not eligible for tax-exempt status.

The criteria for what makes a church is not cut and dry. The IRS states that the entity must have a recognized creed and form of worship; a formal code of doctrine and discipline; a membership not associated with any other church or denomination; ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies; and holds regular religious services.While an online or cyber-church can arguably have many or most of these characteristics they still hold "electronic ministry" does not fit the criteria (see summary at Law.com).

The official court ruling is meant to crack down of online entities collecting money for bogus purposes and organization, however this also a huge ideological impact on the nature and definition of religion online.

The full ruling it explains this online church failed meet a 14 criteria test set out by the IRS on the form/function of a church. This includes proving it is "a cohesive group of individuals who join together to accomplish the purposes of mutually held beliefs". Therefore, by my reading, to legally be considered a church there would need to be things in place like formal record keeping, defined authority structure online/offline and ability to clearly define membership and host a "gathered" annual membership meeting etc. This force any online church to function within offline boundaries/structures if they want to be considered/protected as a church and remain tax-exempt. So to have validity the online will be forced to establish offline structures of accountability. That seem an important shift to me.

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