April 14, 2011; Source: Patheos | Typically, debates about the tax treatment of faith-based organizations and of churches involve well-known and recognized religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. – and sometimes debates around whether more controversial “religions” such as Scientology really are what they claim and deserve comparable tax treatment. But how often do we read about the tax treatment of the “sacred centers” of pagan religious organizations?

In 2010, the U.K.’s Charity Commission approved the charitable status of The Druid Network (TDN), the first pagan organization ever to garner the status as an officially recognized church. Pagans celebrated the decision as “yet another step toward broader acceptance and greater tolerance for Druids, Witches, Heathens, and other Pagans in modern Western society,” according to Druid author, Alison Leigh Lilly. Are there tax exempt Druid and Wiccan churches in the U.S.? How are the various dimensions of paganism or, for that matter, polytheism treated in U.S.?

According to Lilly’s take on U.S. nonprofit law, “In the United States it is actually quite easy to exist as a church, largely exempt from regulation and taxation, because of the First Amendment,” and unlike other nations like the U.K., U.S. places of worship are tax exempt but unlike 501(c)(3)s, are not required to file tax statements such as 990s with the IRS.

But what qualifies as a legally defensible church? Lilly cites the definition in the IRS Tax Guide for Churches, with the following church characteristics: 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 worship, regular congregations; regular religious services, Sunday schools for the religious instruction of the young, and schools for the preparation of its ministers.

Because minority religions such as Paganism “are far more likely to come under closer scrutiny” by government and the public, they “cannot take for granted their automatic inclusion within definitions of ‘church’ and ‘religion’ based largely on a Judeo-Christian mainstream.” As a result, many religious groups will choose to file as a 501(c)(3), even if they think they might qualify as churches, just circumvent local political dynamics.

Lilly calls for pagans to be increasingly involved in national debates over what qualifies as a church to make it easier for “our covens, groves, temples, and sacred centers…[to] gain increasing freedom from government regulation.” With that advocacy message, the Druids sound just like a mainstream religion.—Rick Cohen