Recently, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the revocation of church status for the Foundation for Human Understanding (106 AFTR 2d 2010-5862) because it did not satisfy the so-called associational test. The associational test is a test used by courts to determine whether an organization constitutes a church for 501(c)(3) purposes and consists of asking whether the organization “includes a body of believers who assemble regularly for communal worship.” The IRS and the courts generally avoid getting into the substance of the worship services of the various churches–as long as the believers associate with each other (and, in some churches, with venomous snakes).
In the case at issue, the Foundation did hold seminars in various locations in the U.S., but they were too sporadic. Nonetheless, the Foundation claimed that its “electronic ministry” should suffice: the Foundation broadcast sermons over the radio and internet and included a “call-in” show that enabled persons to call and interact with the Foundation’s clergy via telephone. For any who find their church too long or too boring or who dislike real people or don’t like getting out of bed on Sunday morning, this “church” might have just the sort of association you are looking for. Unfortunately, the Court determined that the Foundation does not meet its associational test on the grounds that a call-in show “does not provide individual congregants with the opportunity to interact and associate with each other in worship.” I wonder if there is some middle ground to be explored here: a church chat-room or other form of virtual meeting may satisfy the letter of the law by providing association (albeit virtual) with other worshipers, but still allow church-goers to associate from the comfort of their couch (perhaps with the game on in the background). Potentially distracting? Yes. But not as distracting as snakes.