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Churches enjoy non-profit status without complying with most non-profit disclosure requirements. From the IRS website: "Generally, tax-exempt organizations must file an annual information return (Form 990/990-EZ)...Churches, some church-affiliated organizations and certain other types of organizations are excepted from filing."

Large church organizations (such as evangelical megachurches, the LDS church, and the Catholic church) thus are not required to disclose financial information. Some members (and non-members) of these churches have tried to apply pressure (or sue) to obtain more information on these organizations' financials. Other wealthy individuals have started or acquired churches (like Kris Jenner's California Community Church or Anthony Levandowski's Church of AI) that some see as potential vehicles for personal enrichment or other fraud. (Another question on LSE discusses why this is not a common practice, with threat of IRS audits mentioned, but it's not clear to me how the IRS would learn of potential fraud absent disclosure.)

  1. Where is the church exception from filing Form 990 specified in law? Is this a direct consequence of the religious exercise clause of the First Amendment (e.g. would it likely be deemed unconstitutional to remove this exception), or a result of legislation that could be changed with new legislation?
  2. (Apologies if this should be a separate question) If a church were to be used as a vehicle personal enrichment (e.g. registering assets for personal use in the name of the church), what actual visiblity into this would the IRS have, given that the church does not file form 990?
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  • It's not legislation but regulation: law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/26/1.6033-2#g_1_i but I do not know whether the regulation was created because of a court ruling on the free exercise of religion. It seems unlikely, however, because it further seems that the exception has been challenged in court as unconstitutionally favoring religious organizations.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 9, 2023 at 22:52

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26 USC 6033(a)(1) states that

Except as provided in paragraph (3), every organization exempt from taxation under section 501(a) shall file an annual return, stating specifically...

Paragraph (3)(A) "Exceptions from filing: Mandatory exceptions" then says

Paragraph (1) shall not apply to— (i) churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, (ii) any organization (other than a private foundation, as defined in section 509(a)) described in subparagraph (C), the gross receipts of which in each taxable year are normally not more than $5,000, or (iii) the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.

This being an act of Congress, a definitive answer as to political reasons is somewhat beyond the scope of LSE. Even diserning when this clause was added would be challenging.

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  • Thanks, this was super helpful. I dug into 6033(a) and found that Form 990 was introduced in the Tax Reform Act of 1969 (A History of the Tax-Exempt Sector: An SOI Perspective (irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/tehistory.pdf), p. 125. I'm still curious--is there a clear argument why requiring churches to file Form 990 would (or would not) violate the First Amendment (not necessarily why it wasn't required in the 1969 legislation)? Is that also beyond the scope of LSE? (I'm new here.)
    – RussH
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 8:54
  • @RussH Requiring churches to file Form 990 probably wouldn't violate the First Amendment in most cases (e.g., the vast majority of churches still have to file payroll tax returns, although a handful are exempt on First Amendment grounds). But, not requiring a Form 990 reduces the amount of government-church interaction that is necessary, furthering the goals of the free exercise clause.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 12, 2023 at 2:36

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