What constitutes a church under federal laws?

Because churches are afforded special tax-exempt status by the IRS, there are very specific guidelines determining which organizations can and can't claim a religious affiliation.

by Heleigh Bostwick
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

Most churches are easy to recognize when we see them—a congregation hall, rows of pews, probably a steeple. But what constitutes a church in the eyes of the IRS?

Definitions of church

The issue of establishing definitions for a church has big implications. Institutions considered churches are granted tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Tax Code.

Common definitions of the word "church" refer to the religious entity or organization, not just the building itself. The definition becomes more complicated when considering each religious group's own definition of what constitutes a church.

Churches and the IRS

To clarify the federal government's definitions of a church and other religious institutions, the Internal Revenue Service uses clearly-defined guidelines.

Over the years, the IRS has revised this list in response to various court decisions.

To define churches and other religious entities, some of the IRS guidelines consider whether or not an institution has:

  • a distinct legal existence and religious history,
  • a recognized creed and form of worship,
  • established places of worship
  • a regular congregation and regular religious services, and
  • an organization of ordained ministers

Most mainstream religions, such as Catholicism, Judaism, and common Protestant sects fit easily within the IRS guidelines.

However, less traditional churches sometimes face difficulty in meeting the federal government's definition.

Qualifying as a church

Some of the confusion over churches arises when the IRS differentiates between religious institutions like churches and religious organizations.

The IRS offers the following concerning religious organizations, "Religious organizations that are not churches typically include nondenominational ministries, interdenominational and ecumenical organizations, and other entities whose principal purpose is the study or advancement of religion."

However, in some cases, a religious organization may qualify as a church even if it does not appear to be a church in the traditional sense. This is the case with Young Life, a nonprofit organization that the IRS officially recognized as a church following a July 2005 ruling.

Interestingly, Young Life does not have an established place of worship or church building per se, but it does have weekly meetings at specific locations. In the end, although Young Life did not meet all federal criteria for religious entities, the IRS concluded that it did meet a sufficient number of them to qualify as a church.

The bottom line is that the IRS has created specific guidelines on churches and other religious entities to determine their tax status. However, it is not a requirement that a church meets all the criteria. Instead, the IRS offers flexibility, allowing various religious institutions to qualify for the highly coveted tax-exempt status.

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Heleigh Bostwick

About the Author

Heleigh Bostwick

Heleigh Bostwick has been writing for LegalZoom since 2006, touching on topics as diverse as estate planning and kids, c… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.