Tax time approaches. In some of our past entries here at the ULCM blog, we have posed the question what really defines a church. While it has been extremely challenging for the U.S. federal government to constrain the definition of church so as to restrict the average person from becoming an ordained minister—especially through such unconventional organizations as the online church—the Internal Revenue Service has its own list of fourteen criteria which it adopted in De La Salle v. United States, and which it uses to determine whether a given organization may be classified as a church.

The fourteen points which the IRS considers covers a wide range of notions, such as legal status, beliefs and practices, clerical activity, the characteristics of congregations and worship services, church government, and ministry education and training. While these general considerations may seem foggy and indefinite, the IRS has dissolved them into the following criteria:

1. Distinct legal existence
2. Recognized creed and form of worship
3. Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
4. Formal code of doctrine and discipline
5. Distinct religious history
6. A membership not associated with any other church or denomination
7. An organization of ordained ministers
8. Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies
9. Literature of its own
10. Established places of worship
11. Regular congregations
12. Regular religious services
13. Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young
14. Schools for the preparation of its ministers

Of course, upon reviewing these points, the average ULCM minister may become distressed and ask herself whether her church meets such specific and restrictive criteria. The definiteness of the IRS Fourteen Points should not be cause for concern, however, since what defines a church cannot be restricted solely to these criteria, according to a scholarly analysis by Robert Louthian and Thomas Miller. As Louthian and Miller warn, “Given the variety of religious practice . . . attempts to use a dogmatic numerical approach might unconstitutionally favor established churches at the expense of newer, less traditional institutions”. This observation helps us understand that the Fourteen Points might show a bias toward well known, well established churches the rituals, creeds, and laws of which are in some manner more “quantifiable” than those of more nascent religions.

Trying to quantify religion is a dicey issue and deserves scrutiny. Nevertheless, until this disconnect between the IRS Fourteen Points and the more liberal federal U.S. government’s stance toward the definition of religion is resolved, we at Universal Life Church Monastery like to err on the side of caution and advise our clergy to use the Fourteen Points as a guide for churches and non-profit organizations. Please keep in mind that this is a pragmatic recommendation, and not a theoretical endorsement of the arbitrary and discriminatory practices of the Fourteen Points.

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