Did you know there’s a Focus on the Family church? Yep — it’s called “Focus on the Family.” The religious right organization declared itself to be a church in 2016. It wasn’t a tax dodge — though, by becoming a church, it gets a number of those, too — but rather, an attempt to circumvent the Affordable Care Act.
Prior to 2016, Focus on the Family was a normal non-profit. But when the Affordable Care Act mandated that all employers who provide health insurance must cover contraception, the organization balked. Though the ACA provided a method for churches to opt-out of providing contraception coverage, Focus on the Family didn’t meet the requirements.
According to Right Wing Watch, Focus on the Family wrote to the IRS in May 2016 asking to be classified as a church. It wrote that for “its entire existence, Focus on the Family has been a religious tax-exempt organization with many of the essential elements of a church.” It complained the group would suffer an “adverse impact” if it weren’t able to take advantage of the religious exemption.
The IRS wasn’t so sure, and asked for more information, claiming that Focus on the Family “does not appear to line up very strongly” with the list of 14 characteristics the IRS uses to determine if an organization is a church. In response, Focus on the Family claimed its 600 employees as ministers, and that its “daily work is worship.” It also cited the “great number of pilgrims” to travel to the organization’s headquarters. In Sept. 2016, the IRS accepted Focus on the Family’s request.
With the Focus on the Family church recognized by the IRS, it was able to take advantage of the ACA’s opt-out clause. However, that’s not all. In addition, Focus on the Family no longer has to file publicly available tax documents. The group also no longer has to pay unemployment taxes, provide unemployment benefits to employees that are let go, is protected from audits and more benefits. And by declaring employees “ministers,” people that work for Focus on the Family could deduct housing allowances from their income tax.
Focus on the Family’s change in status has been widely criticized. Anthea Butler, a University of Pennsylvania professor of religious studies, told Right Wing Watch that under this interpretation of the law, “any nonprofit organization can be a church. Everybody’s going to try to call themselves a church now.”