Critics of churches' favorable tax treatment gained ammunition from a recent investigation by National Public Radio, which questioned why the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has granted church status to 22 of America's 30 largest television ministries.
Only two are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But such filings can be legitimate, said president Dan Busby. "The advent of new technologies used by churches to disseminate their message has only served to make distinctions between church and parachurch organizations more complex."
Many churches leverage today's technology so those beyond their walls can participate. But Christian legal experts are concerned that blurred lines between "church" and "ministry" will eventually spur the IRS to reexamine what constitutes a church. (The agency last stripped a nonprofit of church status in 2004, largely because the broadcasting- and publishing-focused group mostly ceased to gather its followers in a physical space.)
In late 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the IRS, arguing that churches should be subject to the same Form 990 paperwork as nonprofits are. A Wisconsin federal court decided that the atheist group had legal standing to proceed.
If the foundation prevails, church formation may be stifled, said Chicago attorney Rich Baker. Few of the hundreds of churches he has represented have the financial resources to complete registration forms and audited financial statements.
"Each signals a greater degree of oversight," said Baker. "If they make churches file as charitable entities, it would have major repercussions."
A federal judge in Kentucky recently dismissed ...1