The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption

John Montague

October 1, 2013

35 Cardozo Law Review 203 (2013)

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.

Examining the legislative history, this Article argues that the primary function of the information return has become its utility to donors, and policymakers have recognized the role that public access can play in keeping 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.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 63

Keywords: Form 990, Churches, Financial Transparency

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Date posted: November 3, 2013  

Suggested Citation

Montague, John, The Law and Financial Transparency in Churches: Reconsidering the Form 990 Exemption (October 1, 2013). 35 Cardozo Law Review 203 (2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2349093

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