March 2020 Church & State | People & Events

Two large conservative groups are claiming to be churches to avoid public reporting requirements and oversight from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), The Washington Post has reported.

Focus on the Family (FOF) and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) have both told the IRS they are now houses of worship. As such, they are no longer required to issue publicly available financial documents that show how they spend their money and how much they pay top executives.

MinistryWatch, a group that monitors Christian organizations and provides information to donors, first noticed the trend last year. Writing on the group’s website, Warren Cole Smith, MinistryWatch president, noted that several groups that had been considered ministries had reorganized as churches. Ministries are required to file a detailed financial statement called a Form 990 every year, while houses of worship are not.

Smith criticized the trend, telling The Post, “Transparency and accountability send an important message to the world, which is why this trend is so potentially destructive.”

BGEA, which is now run by Graham’s son Franklin Graham, a close ally of President Donald Trump, defended its actions. A spokesman told The Post that the group wanted to limit “government interference” and said it considered completing the Form 990 too time-consuming.

An FOF spokesman claimed the change was made to protect its donors.

“In recent years there have been several occasions on which non-profit organizations – on both the right and the left – were targeted for information, including the names and personal details of their donors,” Paul Batura said. “In order to protect our constituents’ privacy, and because Focus does, in fact, meet the definition of a church under IRS regulations, we applied for and received this designation.”

Despite FOF’s claim that it qualifies as a church, IRS regulations would seem to indicate otherwise. The tax agency maintains a list of 14 characteristics that apply to houses of worship. FOF and similar organizations don’t meet many of them, including having an organization of ordained ministers, maintaining an established place of worship, overseeing a regular congregation, holding regular religious services and sponsoring regular programs for the religious instruction of the young.

The Post reported, “Some of these organizations said they see themselves as church-like entities despite not holding worship services.”