The Satanic Temple: Now a Church!

Maybe you heard (or maybe you didn’t): the IRS recently recognized the Satanic Temple as a tax-exempt church.

Before you react to the news, that first sentence requires some unpacking. Specifically, we need to know what the Satanic Temple is, and we need to know what it means to be recognized as a tax-exempt church.

To the extent you’ve heard of the Satanic Temple, it’s likely in one of two contexts. They both have to do with its Baphomet statues.

Last August, Arkansas legislators approved the installation of a Ten Commandments monument on the state capitol grounds; the Satanic Temple held a rally in which they unveiled an 8-foot-tall statute of Baphomet. If the state provides space for a Ten Commandments monument, they argued, it also has to include its Baphomet statue.

A couple months later, the Satanic Temple sued Netflix for copying its statue in its The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

The Satanic Temple isn’t limited to Baphomet statues, though. It has worked to give invocations at legislatures that open with prayer. In response to a public school that allowed Evangelical Christians to pass out Bibles, they requested permission to pass out the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities.

Basically, the Satanic Temple is an Establishment Clause watchdog group.

And now, the IRS recognizes it as a church.

Does that recognition represent an endorsement of the Satanic Temple’s beliefs? Absolutely not. The IRS and courts have established 14 criteria that it looks at to determine whether an organization is a church. Those criteria are:

  • 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
  • Schools for the preparation of its members

To qualify as a church, an organization doesn’t have to have each of these things. And there’s no particular weighting that the IRS applies to the various criteria. But generally speaking, an organization that has a bunch of these characteristics will be recognized as a church.

Does the Satanic Temple meet these criteria? Probably; I’m planning on requesting their exemption materials from the IRS to see how it says it meets these criteria, but it could take two months or more for the IRS to respond to my request.

And why would the Satanic Temple want to be treated as a church, rather than a different kind of 501(c)(3) charity? A whole bunch of reasons. Churches don’t have to file annual information returns with the IRS. Which means they don’t have to disclose a lot of information that other tax-exempt organizations have to provide. (Technically, they don’t even have to apply for their exemption.) It’s harder to audit a church. The Trump administration has, at various times, proposed to water down (or even eliminate) the prohibition on tax-exempt organizations campaigning, but only for churches.

And this is what makes the tax exemption of a part with many of the other activities the Satanic Temple does. The Satanic Temple, I suspect, doesn’t really care if its Baphomet statue is displayed at state capitols. It takes time and effort to distribute literature. But when the religious establishment involves Satan, majority legislators may understand the harm that endorsement does. Or, even if they don’t, they may back down from the proposed endorsement just so they don’t have to let the Satanic Temple act.

And there has reportedly already been at least one outraged legislator. If enough become outraged, will Congress change the rules that treat churches differently from other tax-exempt public charities? That, it seems to me, is likely the Satanic Temple’s endgame.

But until that happens, from a federal tax perspective, the Satanic Temple is the same as the Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, or any other church.

Comments

  1. Maybe I’m going to hell for this, but I’m actually on board with much of The Satanic Temples goals, particularly that churches should be treated the same as other charitable organizations.

  2. If Trump is trying to water down tax audits of church’s it could only mean one thing: Trump is going to start a church of his own. The only question is, will be Evangelical Christian, or will the church members worship Trump?

  3. Jean@Howling Frog says:

    Huh, I’d assumed they already were. While I’m not in favor of everything they do, like JLM I think they do some valuable work. I like their establishment watchdog work, the prayers and whatnot.

  4. I’m glad churches don’t have to meet all 14 criteria, otherwise the LDS Church would fail to meet the standard: Ordained ministers selected after completing prescribed courses of study.

  5. That’s right, Wally. The criteria are supposed to provide some sense that an organization is a religion. Clearly not every religion will meet every one of the criteria. And even recognizing that, the criteria are biased toward old, familiar (largely Christian) religious forms. So they’re totally and aggressively imperfect, but they’re also what the IRS has to work with, at least as long as churches are treated differently than other tax-exempt organizations are.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    So are the folks behind the Satanic genuine worshipers of Satan, or are they using Satan as a (highly effective) device to troll Christians and other religions in their Establishment Clause advocacy, or maybe a little bit of both?

  7. Kevin, from the website’s FAQ:

    DO YOU WORSHIP SATAN?
    No, nor do we believe in the existence of Satan or the supernatural. The Satanic Temple believes that religion can, and should, be divorced from superstition. As such, we do not promote a belief in a personal Satan. To embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions. Satanists should actively work to hone critical thinking and exercise reasonable agnosticism in all things. Our beliefs must be malleable to the best current scientific understandings of the material world — never the reverse.

    They dig on the aesthetic and like to troll people’s religious sensibilities in transgressive ways, but they claim to not actually worship Satan.

  8. Billy Possum says:

    Like Kevin, I wonder about sincerity of belief. And specifically, I wonder whether the IRS has put a sincerity “gloss” on any of the criteria. Any idea, Sam?

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Conrad, that is very helpful. I simply hadn’t realized that all the Satan stuff is basically a device for world class trolling.

  10. Like JLM, I’m on board with this. It’s quite creative for a watchdog group, and I imagine a ton of work.

    Do we really want the IRS evaluating sincerity of belief in their decision making? That seems a bit out of their purview to me.

  11. nobody, really says:

    ReTx:
    “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster” has been doing the same sort of thing for a while. One of the “tenets” of their “faith” is that adherents must appear on government IDs with a pasta strainer worn as a holy headcovering.

    And the IRS gets to evaluate the sincerity of belief all the time. Ask anyone who may have tried to organize a conservative not-for-profit group during the days when Lois Lerner was determining who got hit with requests for additional paperwork.

  12. nobody, really, it’s not really amenable to discussion in comments, but it’s worth noting that TIGTA found that the issues with exempt applications applied equally to liberal groups. It’s also worth noting that the questions had nothing to do with sincerity of belief.

  13. Michael Austin says:

    “And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look, and behold that great and abominable church, which is the mother of abominations, whose founder is the devil. And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.” (1 Nephi 14:9-10

    The Book of Mormon makes it pretty clear, not only that “The Church of the Devil” is an actual Church, but that it is the only thing other than TCFKAM that should be called a Church. So clearly they should get a tax exemption on whatever Great and Abominable things they build and do.

  14. I’m delighted by the Establishment clause watchdog work, and recognize that it has to sound really edgy to work.

    I’m also intrigued by traditional religionist reactions. I suspect they get headline reactions because of the Satanic Temple name and Baphomet statues, but some reflection should lead to an even stronger reaction to the trolling of institutional church privileges.

  15. I wonder what the reaction would be if one were to post the following on their social media (slightly modified to help the reader avoid labeling the writer):

    I believe in reason, empathy, the pursuit of knowledge and:

    One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
    The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
    One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
    The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
    Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
    People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
    Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

  16. Aussie Mormon says:

    Michael, maybe we could force 501c3 on them all. Politics would be a lot different if people couldn’t donate to candidates.

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    So, after reading their creeds and other “doctrine”, I am forced to conclude that I’ve been a Satanist for decades. That’s going to make my next temple recommend interview slightly awkward.

  18. I would love for them to put up their statue. Then I could deface it or knock it over because I had decided it was racist. After all, isn’t that all that is required these days to destroy a statue?