First Church of Gern
September 3, 2008 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Can I somehow declare my house as a church and not pay property taxes? What tax benefits can I enjoy by starting my own church? Where can I find the laws that govern this?
posted by GernBlandston to Law & Government (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is the publication you're looking for (in the U.S.). Basically, a church must conform to the following guidelines, at a minimum, for the IRS to even consider it:

Distinct legal existence
Recognized creed and form of worship
Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
Formal code of doctrine and discipline
Distinct religious history
Membership not associated with any other church or denomination
Organization of ordained ministers
Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
Literature of its own
Established places of workshop
Regular congregations
Regular religious services
Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young
Schools for the preparation of its members


So, yeah, good luck with that...
posted by mkultra at 8:18 AM on September 3, 2008


Well, are you involved in hosting those pursuing spiritual beliefs and practices? If not, really then, no, any more than you could just decide to declare yourself a secular not-for-profit organization in general without a specific mission for the public good. Assuming for the sake of argument you are sincere, if you're not part of a recognized religion or denomination I would imagine you would come under a bit of scrutiny to prove yourself to various taxing authorities. (In which case you want to speak to a tax lawyer, not AskMe, and maybe start your reading at the IRS's web site and the taxation web pages of whatever state and local authorities govern where you are.)
posted by aught at 8:23 AM on September 3, 2008


Do you think you're the first person to come up with this scheme? Google suggests not. It's kinda like asking about keeping a monkey as a pet--if it were a good idea, or even possible, you'd know lots of folks with monkeys (or house churches).
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:28 AM on September 3, 2008 [3 favorites]


So, yeah, good luck with that...

Easy. First AME Church. The First American Metafilter Empiricist Church. You could start a sub-denomination First AAE Church (AskMe).

Distinct legal existence - I'm sure Matt has that covered in some way.
Recognized creed and form of worship
The creed: "Help me, oh hive mind". Form of worship - selecting of best answers, thanking the responders, expressing joy, delight and wonder at the hive mind. Don't laugh, people have posited that maybe our shared existence as human beings will be godlike, or perhaps already is.
Definite and distinct ecclesiastical government
Umm...This could be a problem.
Formal code of doctrine and discipline
Clearly covered by the F.A.Q.
Distinct religious history
The site history goes back to what, 1998? Covered.
Membership not associated with any other church or denomination
Logging in at metafilter doesn't grant you access to any other websites like boingboing, reddit, digg or slashdot. Covered.
Organization of ordained ministers
Easy.
Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study
The text-books consist of the posts on all three main portions of the site. Vacapinta is the most recently ordained minister.
Literature of its own
Podcasts.
Established places of workshop
They're places on the internet, but they're still places. Also, meetups count, so you'd need to establish your house as a frequent meetup location.
Regular congregations
See above.
Regular religious services
Each post is a call to the start of service.
Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young
Does this count?
Schools for the preparation of its members
This is only a problem insofar as Metafilter University (U.Metafilter.Com) has yet to be implemented. Hopefully they'll get that pony working soon.
You've got a chance...don't give up so easy!
posted by cashman at 8:40 AM on September 3, 2008 [7 favorites]


Wow, this is great. Undermining your community and religion all in one swipe.

Cynicism, thy name is GernBlandston.

A guy here in Illinois somehow managed to get away with this recently, though he is probably going to go to the wall for it when it's all said and over with.
posted by wfrgms at 8:46 AM on September 3, 2008


I'm going to guess that each state may have a little different laws governing this, but in general its possible, but not particularly likely. The Universal Life Church (for example) is a legal, tax-exempt entity, and in theory, any ordained minister in the performance of his duties does not have to declare any income from those duties. Whether or not you can create a church from your home I suspect is a bit more complicated. The ULC has a bit more info in their site, but you have to dig a bit.
posted by elendil71 at 8:50 AM on September 3, 2008


Whilst this wont answer your question, people here used to register their vehicles as hearses to avoid paying vehicle registration fees, until the government tightened up on the laws so that you had to carry a deceased in the vehicle at least once a year to keep the hearse status.

In the end: More trouble than it's worth.
posted by chrisbucks at 8:53 AM on September 3, 2008


Can I somehow declare my house as a church and not pay property taxes? What tax benefits can I enjoy by starting my own church? Where can I find the laws that govern this?

You mean, other than by actually, legitimately starting your own church? No.

Or are you asking whether you will be caught?

P.S. Next week, ask if you can declare your house to be a sovereign nation not subject to the authority of the United States and the IRS.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:53 AM on September 3, 2008


This is a terrible idea. In my past career I met several people who tried to do this and all of them have been unsuccessful. For a variety of reasons that I will list, I do not think you will be approved as a church and you will not gain benefit from a tax break.

1. Churches need members: not one or five but usually 50 or more to qualify.
- Do you plan for 50+ people attending programming at your house once or more each week?

2. If your house qualifies as a house of worship, less than 50% of the space can be used as private living quarters. - Are you prepared to open your house up to public use when needed?

3. Church licenses and plantings are usually done if there is no presence in the community or when there is a public benefit for a church to be located within one. Neighbors have the right to petition to stop the a church planting for up to 90 days after conditional permitting begins in most areas. If you are in the middle of a residential street, it is likely that two or more neighbors could nix your request easily.

4. While churches do get a break on taxes, you would still have to show income to pay other taxes that you would qualify for. If you used the church as a potential tax haven for your own earnings, you could be subject to an IRS audit and possible jail time. If others donate and you do not report the money correctly in a Form 990 you could also be subject to an audit. If those same people donate and are church officers - watch out! Remember that most donations to churches are tax-deductible only if the church is willing to give each parishioner an itemized receipt at the end of year accounting for each check they gave.

5. Churches are still subject to city and federal law regarding improvements and not all improvements are subject to the same tax code. For example: if I am a church and I build a parking lot, I will be subject to property tax for that outbuilding. If I build a parking lot and I build a Stations of the Cross along the outer perimeter of the lot, then I could argue that the addition has a religious component. Expect to go to court about this too.

6. Church Conventions like the AME and UMC, for example, are extremely wary of house churches, which are often described as 'cells' because they offer almost no accountability to the wider church community. Also, if you do join a wider church body like the PCUSA, UMC, UUA, etc., you might find that within a certain number of years or under the agreement you sign with the church association that the house you are living in will become the property of the church or the parishioners at-will, in which case the property would cease to be yours and you could be evicted. The other issue for church conventions is accountability. If you died and the home was still private, who would take over? Your child, your spouse, or their selection or that of parishioners.

If you are indeed successful in starting a church in your house, and you become its minister and you are ousted, the parishioners could take you to court to remove you from the community and the house of worship under a restraining clause.

Good luck!
posted by parmanparman at 9:17 AM on September 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whilst this wont answer your question, people here used to register their vehicles as hearses to avoid paying vehicle registration fees, until the government tightened up on the laws so that you had to carry a deceased in the vehicle at least once a year to keep the hearse status.

In the end: More trouble than it's worth.
Would it be wrong for me to suggest 'corpseshare.com' as a solution for this? Maybe with a linked Flickr pool to use as evidence?
posted by lowlife at 9:33 AM on September 3, 2008


"and in theory, any ordained minister in the performance of his duties does not have to declare any income from those duties."

As I understand it, this is not true. Roman Catholic priests pay taxes on their salaries.
posted by Jahaza at 9:37 AM on September 3, 2008


As I understand it, this is not true. Roman Catholic priests pay taxes on their salaries.

I was only reiterating what info came with my nifty ordination papers. As I never tried to do anything like that, I have no practical experience to support it. Just throwing out info. IMO, what the poster wants to do sounds like a really bad idea. Starting a church may bring you closer to God, but trying to mess with the IRS will bring you a lot closer to Hell.
posted by elendil71 at 9:47 AM on September 3, 2008


Whilst this wont answer your question, people here used to register their vehicles as hearses to avoid paying vehicle registration fees, until the government tightened up on the laws so that you had to carry a deceased in the vehicle at least once a year to keep the hearse status.

Unusually enough, the rule was announced via the following ditty: "A hearse is a hearse, with corpse, of course . . ."
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 10:09 AM on September 3, 2008


Anecdotally, my father told me a story about some guys he once knew who started up the "Church of the ( petty inanimate object I forget)", purportedly gathering weekly to worship the inanimate object. They donated all their income to the church and paid it back to themselves as clergy.

They got away with it, for a while, but eventually the hammer came down.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:22 AM on September 3, 2008


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