As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

The law violates the First Amendment by discriminating against "certain religions or religious denominations," the ULCM attorneys charge. The law, the suit says, "prefers" certain denominations because it allows some ministers to solemnize marriages while preventing those with "online ordinations."

The suit contends the law also violates the First Amendment by prohibiting Universal Life Church and its ministers their rights to freely exercise their religion.

You can see that Tennessee officials are, in effect, trying to draw a line between “real” religious institutions and “fake” ones. But who gets to decide what is a “fake” “church” and what is a “real” one? Looming in the background is an even bigger question: What is a “real” religion?

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As is so often the case, that is a question for (a) the Internal Revenue Service and (b) the U.S. Supreme Court, sooner or later.

The IRS?

Yes, valid religious institutions are exempt from taxes, like other nonprofit groups. Lots of folks would like a tax exemption for their groups that assemble to do all kinds of things.

So how do the principalities and powers at the IRS define “church”?

Journalists, click this (.pdf) link to get the full document that you need to file. Here is a key section:

As stated in IRS Publication 557 “[b]ecause beliefs and practices vary so widely, there is no single definition of the word ‘church‘ for tax purposes.” Rather, the IRS considers the following fourteen factors under a “facts and circumstances” test:

• a distinct legal existence;

• a recognized creed and form of worship;

• a definite and distinct ecclesiastical government;

• a formal code of doctrine and discipline;

• a distinct religious history;

• a membership not associated with another church or denomination;

• an organization of ordained ministers;

• ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed studies;

• a literature of its own;

• established places of worship;

• regular congregations;

• regular worship services;

• Sunday schools for religious instruction of the young; and

• schools for the preparation of ministers.

Although no single factor is controlling, and having all 14 (or even one) is not necessary, the IRS is unlikely to recognize an organization as being a church unless it has a number of these characteristics.

You can immediately see that life in cyberspace is going to test several of these concepts. What is “worship” online? What is “seminary education” and a “place of worship’?

The Universal Life Church folks offer this background material (online, of course) describing their new anti-church church.

The Universal Life Church was founded on the basic belief that we are all children of the same universe and, derived from that basic belief, has established two core tenets by which it expects its ministers to conduct themselves:

(1) Do only that which is right.

(2) Every individual is free to practice their religion in the manner of their choosing, as mandated by the First Amendment, so long as that expression does not impinge upon the rights or freedoms of others and is in accordance with the government’s laws.

We have made it our mission to actualize these tenets in the world by empowering millions of ministers, whether they come to us from a Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Shinto, Agnostic, Atheist, Pagan, Wiccan, or Druid tradition, to speak their own truth to power. We work tirelessly to ensure that anyone can get ordained online at the ULC Monastery and we seek to fulfill the spiritual needs of as many different groups as we can by offering plenty of information, a wide variety of services, and networking opportunities. The communication and fellowship of our scattered millions of ministers, we believe, is just as valid a form of worship as the weekly services held in some of the world’s more segregated and elitist religious institutions.

Long ago, when I was doing my graduate work in Baylor University’s old department of Church-State Studies (RIP), we were taught a three-point summary of the IRS standards that I have always found helpful, when covering court cases that involve the “What is a church?” puzzle. I have mentioned this information many times here at GetReligion.

Basically, the government gets to investigate three crucial subjects when testing whether a group is “religious” or not. Do these activities involve fraud, profit or a “clear threat to life and health.”

The problem is that I am not seeing any of these issues discussed in coverage of the Tennessee case.

Well, this topic is not a joke — even if it is the stuff of late-night comedy. There are important issues at stake, in this story. I’ll keep my eye on the coverage.

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