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The Christian hate-group Family Research Council, which has long been a non-profit organization pushing a conservative agenda, is now technically a “church” in the eyes of the IRS, according to a new report from ProPublica. That designation allows it to shield information about donors, salaries, and more from the public eye.

FRC and its leader Tony Perkins have spent the past several years fighting against things like civil rights for LGBTQ people and abortion rights. As a non-profit group, they have every right to do this. But like all non-profits, their tax-exempt status comes with a simple catch: They have to file a Form 990 report with the IRS explaining (among other things) how much money they took in, how it was spent, and how much their top staffers made in salaries. The 990s are public documents that allow the public to keep tabs on whether non-profits are really living up to their mission.

Importantly, that rule does not apply to churches, even though they’re also technically non-profits. They don’t have to fill out the form. They don’t have to make those details public. That means we don’t always know how much money big-name megachurch pastors make—or how much of the congregation’s money goes right into his pocket. We don’t know who’s donating to those churches or where all the money goes.

Also relevant: It’s a lot harder to audit churches than typical non-profits and requires the approval of a “high-level Treasury official.”

But can a non-profit just call itself a church? Aren’t there standards for what a church has to be?

Yes there are. But as John Oliver famously explained on Last Week Tonight in 2015, the bar is very, very low.

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Simply put, if your group meets some combination of the IRS’ list of characteristics of churches, that’s all it takes. That list includes an established place of worship, regular religious services, and ordained ministers.

In 2018, we learned that two Christian groups, Focus on the Family and Liberty Counsel, had apparently designated themselves as churches. How did they do it? Simple. They lied… or at least stretched the truth beyond any conceivable reality. Focus on the Family said its employees were “ministers,” and its members were the “congregation,” and its cafeteria was a “place of worship,” and its board of directors were the “elders,” and its president was the “head deacon,” and its radio shows were just an “extension of its congregation.” The IRS bought it. They approved the change in 2016 and details leaked to the public two years later. (While Focus has still released its tax forms on its website, Liberty Counsel has been a lot more secretive.)

They’re not alone. The watchdog website MinistryWatch has said this is a growing trend:

Among the fifty largest Christian ministries in the country who have made this election [to designate themselves as “churches”] include: CRU/Campus Crusade for Christ, The Navigators, Gideons International, Willow Creek Association, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Joyce Meyer Ministries, and Ethnos360/New Tribes Mission. In addition, many megachurches and their related radio and television ministries. These organizations and individuals include: Joel Osteen, David Jeremiah, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland.

Some of those leaders defended the decision by saying the change allowed them to avoid “government interference” with their work… even though the government wasn’t getting in the way of their missions.

All of that is prelude to what ProPublica’s Andrea Suozzo found out about FRC. The Family Research Council made the same move to become a church in early 2020, and claimed to fulfill the IRS requirements in part because it partners with a whole bunch of churches. Good luck finding the details.

The Family Research Council answered in the affirmative for 11 of those [14] points, saying that it has an array of “partner churches” with a shared mission: “to hold all life as sacred, to see families flourish, and to promote religious freedom.” The group says there is no set process for a church to become one of the partners that make up its association, but it says partners (and the FRC’s employees) must affirm a statement of faith to do so. It claims there are nearly 40,000 churches in its association, made up of different creeds and beliefs — saying that this models the pattern of the “first Christian churches described in the New Testament of the Bible.”

Unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, whose website hosts a directory of more than 50,000 affiliated churches, the FRC’s site does not list these partners or mention the word “church” anywhere on its home page. The FRC’s application to become an association of churches didn’t include this list of partner churches, nor did it provide the names to ProPublica.

FRC told the IRS that it performs baptisms and weddings… via its affiliated churches. Wherever they are.

And it offers private religious school for children… via its affiliated churches.

And it has members… via its affiliated churches.

And it holds religious services… at its office. But wait.

when a ProPublica reporter called to inquire about service times, a staffer who answered the phone responded, “We don’t have church service.” Elsewhere in the form, it says that the employees make up those who attend its services.

Simply put, the Christians at Family Research Council lied over and over and over to the IRS in order to be deemed a “church”… and the IRS said okay. The problem lies with both groups. FRC isn’t a church. And the IRS is horrible at enforcing its own rules. But at this point, the responsibility lies with the IRS to undo the mistake it made.

One thing is clear, though: No one should count on Christian groups to automatically take the ethical high road. They never have, and it’s clear they’re not about to start right now. Once the first domino fell, other Christian groups jumped at the chance to tell the IRS they were a church using the kind of reasoning they would decry as heresy if any non-Christian group ever tried the same thing. The end result is that a bunch of groups that operate politically and that take in a hell of a lot of money under the guise of spreading the Gospel are able to hide their finances from the scrutiny of even its own members. Just utter shadiness everywhere.

If Christians like Perkins can’t police themselves, it’s the government’s job to step in and take action. For now, however, the IRS is avoiding this battle no matter how many rules Christians are breaking.

(Portions of this article were published earlier)

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.