Monday, December 28, 2009
This story from the National Post raises one of the most difficult questions of tax-exemption law (and a particularly timely one for the season): what is a religion? In this case, the state of Missouri has decided that yoga is exercise or entertainment, not religion, and subject to sales tax in the state, although apparently the classification depends in part on where one practices yoga: if in a Hindu temple, then apparently yoga is a religion; if it is in a gym, it is recreation.
The definition of a religious organization in federal tax exemption law requires two elements: (1) a set of beliefs (2) that are sincerely held. That's it. If a group sincerely believes that concrete swimming pools have special properties that elevate one's spirituality, then you have a religious organization for federal exemption purposes (note, however, that it would be the organization that is tax-exempt, not the individual members).
The reason for this state of affairs is not hard to discern. It is probably constitutionally prohibited for the federal government to attempt any serious definition of "religion" for tax purposes. Such an attempt also would simply be impossible - a quick search of the web will reveal hundreds of religions that are taken very seriously by their participants, even if yours truly might find them a bit weird (try this page
if you are looking for a sample, or go directly to the home page for the Church of Body Modification
). And let's be honest - I suspect Romans 2000 years ago would have found the notion of a Jewish guy rising from the dead to be equally bizarre.
Of course, this doesn't leave the IRS impotent when dealing with questions of exemption for religious organizations. There are plenty of wrenches in the IRS's toolbox to attack religious organizations (and other charities) that may be more interested in individual members' comfort or financial well-being than prosyletizing: the private inurement doctrine, the private benefit doctrine, limits on political activity and lobbying, even the sincerity of the beliefs at issue are all fair game. And the IRS has successfully used these tools to attack exemption for the "personal church" scams that have come and gone over the years.
So is yoga a religion or simply recreational exercise? I'll let you decide. But if Scientology and a witches' coven both qualify (which they do), then why not yoga?