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How do I form the First Church of [Insert Celebrity Name Here]
July 6, 2009 11:04 PM   Subscribe

How do I start my own church in California? If L. Ron Hubbard can have a church, why can't I? I have tried searching for "how to start a church" on google and askmefi, but no luck. I think there's something about filing a 501c non-profit form, but there are a lot of forms for similar things (non-profit raffle? commercial coventurer?? what the crap?).

This will not be a serious religious organization by any means, so any money I spend on this endeavor will be minimal. I may want to include the name of a celebrity in the name of my church (think Peter Griffin's Church of Arthur Fonzarelli). If I somehow am able to register a church, will that keep other people from using the name I pick for my church? Can I get out of paying income tax? Do priests pay tax?

It would be really nice if there was just one form I could fill out that a couple of my "congregants" could sign, get notarized and mail to the IRS or City Hall or something.
posted by runcibleshaw to Religion & Philosophy (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Step 1: Raise lots of money or be independently wealthy.

Step 2: Lawyer up.

(The alternative is to be super charismatic and "spiritual" and to naturally attract followers, and to then be a good leader who is at the center of a well-run organization, so that you can afford to lawyer up to get things done right. This path could include starting as a pastor in an established religion and then splitting off once you have a good following. But that's clearly not the path you're going to want to take, since you're being a joker about it rather than actually seriously wanting to have a fanatical religious following. The fact that you are being a joker about it will also keep you from getting tax exempt status, etc. You're not the first joker to come up with this idea, and the government knows about jokers like you. Best of luck!)

P.S. If you can arrange a way to get yourself persecuted and murdered for your beliefs, that will go a long way toward galvanizing your new religion. That part's not much fun for the martyr, but if you really care, you'll be willing to make that sacrifice for Peter Griffin's Church of Arthur Fonzarelli.

P.P.S. If the central tenets of your religion include hanging out with the Beach Boys and then murdering people and burying the corpses in the desert, your religion will likely not do very well. You will, however, have your living situation taken care of by the government for the rest of your life.
posted by The World Famous at 11:29 PM on July 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


You are only allowed to spout nonsense if you believe in it. Insincere nonsense will not be tolerated!

(I think you want this form.)
posted by benzenedream at 12:09 AM on July 7, 2009


Can I get out of paying income tax?

No.

Do you really think you're the first person to think of this as a tax dodge? Do you really think the Revenuers are that stupid?

Trying this stunt as a tax dodge is a really good way to land in jail.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:16 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


You could be ordained into the Universal Life Church, and build your own congregation.

http://www.universalchurchoflife.org/
posted by dkippe at 12:34 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


If L. Ron Hubbard can have a church, why can't I?

Well, it took building a multi-billion dollar, um... "business" first, and fifty years of fighting, legal maneuvering and general extortion to get tax-exempt status for Scientology. And even then, it didn't happen until eight years after Hubbard's death.

So if you're following that road... start by building a multi-billion dollar empire.

The rest is easy.
posted by rokusan at 12:57 AM on July 7, 2009


My understanding--and it could well be faulty!--is that while the organisation may be tax-free, you as an employee of that organisation still draw an income which is therefore taxed.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 1:21 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted to start a Scientology-like church, purely as a scam to make money. I mean, all things considered, L. Ron Hubbard had a pretty awesome life. He was extremely wealthy, and basically spent his time getting high on pills and rum, writing total bullshit, giving lectures, and sailing around on a big boat being waited on hand and foot by young girls in hotpants. The only problem is I'm way too lazy to get it going. It would require a ton of work in the early years of your "religion", and you'd have to be pretty creative to come up with all the scripture and dogma and make it internally consistent until you have enough people that will believe whatever you tell them. You'd also have to make it believable in the beginning (Scientology didn't even start out as a religion, it basically started out as a self-help movement of the sort that were a fad in the 50s, based on a cursory understanding of Freudian psychoanalysis), and wait until you had plenty of loyal devotees to spring the really weird Xenu-style stuff on them.

On the other hand, if you just want to do it as a tax dodge or as a joke, I doubt you'd get away with it. You'd have to actually appear to be a religion, with a congregation and places of worship and so forth.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:17 AM on July 7, 2009


Also also, if you're looking at doing it as a tax dodge, remember that Scientology only obtained tax exemption in the early 90s, well after Hubbard's death, and the rumor is that they only obtained it via blackmailing a high-ranking IRS official (they supposedly had a videotape of either him or his son that clearly showed the fucking of underage girls). The whole reason Hubbard lived on a boat in international waters for all that time, and then hid out in the desert for the rest of his life, is because the IRS (as well as the FBI and probably other law enforcement agencies) was after him.
posted by DecemberBoy at 2:21 AM on July 7, 2009


I may want to include the name of a celebrity in the name of my church (think Peter Griffin's Church of Arthur Fonzarelli). If I somehow am able to register a church, will that keep other people from using the name I pick for my church?

Not being one to do things by halves, you're also heading for trademark infringement problems.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:37 AM on July 7, 2009


The United States does not recognize or categorize religions as "legitimate" or "illegitimate". It's in the Constitution. It does, however recognize organizations as charitable under the tax code. See Section 501(c)(3).
posted by scalefree at 6:29 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I imagine step one would include not posting on the internet about how you want to start your "religion" for tax evasion purposes.
posted by odinsdream at 6:51 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're actually asking two different questions. The first is how you start a "religious" movement. The second has to do with non-profit entities and their tax ramifications.

As to the first, it's pretty simple: start teaching something significant numbers of people will believe. That's pretty much all there is to it. How seriously they take it is up to them, and whether or not you're okay with that is up to you, but it's a pretty basic fact that you can't have a group with only one person. So get other people to play along. I've got no specific recommendations as to how to do that, but that's what you gotta do.

The second is a bit more... technical. Also a lot more likely to land you in jail. Getting idiots to play along with your particular brand of hokum isn't legally very interesting--unless you're defrauding them or having them engage in criminal activity--but trying to get out of paying taxes will have the T-men on your ass faster than you can spin a prayer wheel. Or whatever it is you think you're doing. It doesn't matter how serious or silly your "organization" is, you cannot get out of paying income tax. Getting your organization recognized as a non-profit will protect the corporation from paying income tax, but not you.

As to naming, once you register your corporation with the Secretary of State of California, the name goes on a list which must be checked by anyone seeking to incorporate in the state. No name can be used twice. That's true in every state in the union.

Don't use a "celebrity" name in your title. You'll get your butt sued off for misappropriation. And you'll lose. Same goes for using fictional characters. Copyright infringement.

Look, I can tell from your question that this is just a lark for you. You don't know half of what you'd need to get something like this started, and even if you did, it'd wind up costing you more money than you'd ever make/save, even assuming you don't rack up hundreds of thousands in fines and legal fees. Drop it.
posted by valkyryn at 6:56 AM on July 7, 2009


Yes, clergy pay tax. Plenty of tax. But it's calculated different than anyone else's, so it's a pain to do. (We're self-employed for social security purposes, and employees of the church for income tax purposes.) Overall, I think the amount we pay works out about the same as someone else with the same income.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:19 AM on July 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm going to say what everyone's thinking:

Don't do this. It's a monumentally stupid idea. You won't get out of paying income tax (as Pater Aletheias points out). The only place you might save money is if you buy a building specifically for your church; and, reading your question, you're not likely to get to that point.

Let me tell you: California law is full of little loopholes that will fuck over people when they try silly stuff. There are states where all this would earn you would be a stern talking-to from a judge and an injunction never to do this again (even there, it wouldn't work) but the complexity and strangeness of California law is likely to get you put in prison or sued for large amounts of money.

Though I never thought I'd have to say this: life is not like The Family Guy. Not at all. You can't just start your own church and make money that way. And, if there were any justice at all, L. Ron Hubbard wouldn't have been allowed to, either.
posted by koeselitz at 8:34 AM on July 7, 2009


Look up how the Church of Craft did it. I read a book called "A Church Of Her Own" and towards the back, the founder of the CoC talks about how she did it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:46 AM on July 7, 2009


Though I never thought I'd have to say this: life is not like The Family Guy. Not at all. You can't just start your own church and make money that way. And, if there were any justice at all, L. Ron Hubbard wouldn't have been allowed to, either.

Sure you can. You just can't make a silly church and expect not to be hassled about it. But if you're willing to pretend being serious about it and can manipulate people into supporting you, the world is your oyster.
posted by scalefree at 9:06 AM on July 7, 2009


scalefree is more or less correct, but it's the "manipulate people into supporting you" part which is usually the catch. If you've got no significant support, it may not matter how serious you are. But if you do have widespread or influential supporters, preferably both, you can get away with a lot. E.g. Scientology, a manifestly silly movement that has managed to stick around through the patronage of the influential.

But no offense, OP, this is a really stupid idea. Trying to run a scam on the unsuspecting public is one thing, but though definitely evil, far less likely to land you in major trouble than trying to run a scam on the IRS. They will nail your ass to the wall. Do not screw around with this.
posted by valkyryn at 9:35 AM on July 7, 2009


Yeah, I just threw in the income tax thing because I was wondering. I don't actually want to get out of paying taxes or dupe unsuspecting members of the public (I have plenty of friends I can dupe). From what everyone is saying, I guess "The First Church of Michael Jackson, King of Pop and Heaven" will never get off the ground. Too bad really, because people are starting to see his face in grilled cheese sandwiches already. I think I was mostly hoping that I could own the name and that some other, much more crazy person would pay me to use it. But, it sounds like I'll get sued well before then.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:01 AM on July 7, 2009


But if you're willing to pretend being serious about it and can manipulate people into supporting you, the world is your oyster.

Literally.
posted by The World Famous at 10:06 AM on July 7, 2009 [2 favorites]


One more snag I just realized is that you'll also be getting grief from the celebrity whose name you'll be using or their estate if they're dead. There might be a novel legal angle if you claim a religious exemption but you can't go around appropriating the name of a celebrity without their permission. Either way you're in for a fight.
posted by scalefree at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2009


How about writing a diet book instead?
posted by x46 at 12:08 PM on July 7, 2009


Also, if you're in the SF bay area, you might want to talk to/join the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. They may have beaten you to the punch on the celebrity name aspect. They do allow tax deductible donations, so they have obviously already jumped through the CA hoops.
posted by benzenedream at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2009


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