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Online from january 2007
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The law and financial transparency in churches: reconsidering the form 990 exemption

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Introduction - I. Legislative History A. Early Legislative History of the Information Return Requirement - The Revenue Act of 1943 - 2. The Imposition of the Unrelated Business Income Tax in 1950 - 3. Expanding the Information Return and Unrelated Business Income Tax in 1969 - B. Televangelist Scandals During the 1980s - C. Recent Legislative History of the Information Return - 1. The William Aramony Scandal and Aftermath - 2. Recent Revisions to Form -II. Increased public access to and use of FORM 990 Information Returns - III. Churches should not be exempt from filing form - A. Churches Are Especially Susceptible to Financial Abuses / - 1. Many Churches Lack Basic Forms of Oversight and Accountability, Revealing Too Much Trust in the Honesty of Religious People - 2. Churches Where Power is Concentrated in the Hands of One Leader Provide the Ideal Structure for Financial Abuse - 3. Even at Churches with More Independent Boards, Leaders Still Maintain Undue Influence - 4. The Nature of Spiritual Leadership Gives Church Pastors Extraordinary Power - 5. Hierarchical Churches also Lack Proper Financial Oversight, and Lay Members Have Little Say in Accountability - B. Churches Themselves Would Benefit from Increased Transparency and Accountability - 1. Greater Transparency May Increase Donations - 2. Requiring Transparency Would Mitigate the Inevitable Fall in Donations from Scandals at Similar Institutions -3. Financial and Other Scandals, Caused or Exacerbated by Lack of Transparency, Have the Potential to Damage the Spiritual Lives of Churchgoers - C. Many Churchgoers Would Likely Welcome More Financial Transparency - D. Financial Transparency is Consistent with the Teachings of Many Churches - E. Self-Regulation Is Insufficient to Prevent Financial Abuse - F. The Public Has a Right to Know What Happens to Taxpayer Money Funneled to Churches - IV. Constitutional Issues - A. Removing the Exemption Would Not Violate Free Exercise - B. The Current Exemption May Violate the Establishment Clause - C. Requiring Churches to File the Form 990 Would Not Be Excessively Entangling – Conclusion.

ABSTRACT: Most tax-exempt organizations are required to file the IRS Form 990, an information return that is open to the public. The Form 990 is used by watchdogs and donors to learn detailed financial information about charities. However, churches are exempt from filing the Form 990 and need not disclose any financial information to the IRS, the public, or their donors. In December 2012, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability recommended to Senator Charles Grassley that Congress should preserve the exemption, despite recent financial scandals at churches. nonprofits honest and efficient. Unfortunately, because churches do not have to be transparent or accountable, few of them are. Using research and insights from sociology, this Article contends that because of their opacity and the unique nature of religious authority, churches are more likely to foster and shelter malfeasance. Churchgoers are unlikely to challenge leaders because doing so can endanger their position in the religious community, making it imperative that transparency be mandated by outside authorities. Ironically, increased transparency may actually be good for churches because, as studies suggest, it is likely to increase donations and because, by minimizing opportunities for financial improprieties, it may preserve the religious experience of churchgoers. In addition, transparency is consistent with the teaching of many Christian leaders and with the expressed preferences of a large portion of churchgoers.

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