Do you know the difference between a non-profit religious organization and a church? Perhaps the biggest difference is their tax obligations. While it is true that neither is required to pay taxes, a pastor, televangelist, or broadcasting company that is registered as a religious organization must file information returns (Form 990) with the IRS that disclose how their money is spent. However, churches, for the most part, do not have to answer to anyone.
John Burnett, reporting for National Public Radio, writes about a Christian television network called “Daystar” that operates much like a wealthy corporation, except without the transparency. Yet they call themselves a church and the IRS has never questioned it so far as anyone knows. There is a 14-point test that the IRS may use (in theory) to determine if an entity qualifies as a church under the law, but the IRS doesn’t enforce it. And if these churchy executives decide they want to drive Bentleys and live in sprawling chateus, they do it. If they want to spend donation money on their own pet causes, then they do it. According to IRS insiders, the government just doesn’t audit churches anymore, for at least the past five years anyway.
As part of America’s commitment to religious freedom, anyone can start a church, start preaching and passing the collection plate. They are presumed to be a church by the IRS — no questions asked.
Quoting former Daystar employees and tax attorneys, Burnett makes it pretty clear that Daystar would never meet the criteria for church status if the IRS were to enforce its own rules. We all know how good the IRS is about enforcing its own rules…