College professor Charles J. Sweeney, as a church minister, claimed he converted 100 people a year, including bartenders, servers and customers in bars. During two years he deducted $30,000 as charitable contributions to his Wilmington, Del., church. Some money went for his home mortgage payments, utilities and telephone bills.

A Tax Court judge said Sweeney presented no evidence he organized a church for religious purposes or that the church paid his bills for service as pastor. The judge disallowed the deductions and added a negligence penalty.

The moral: Churches save souls, not taxes.

Retreat in Motion, from Fort Wayne, Ind., served two purposes: religious and recreational. As a traveling ministry, it used a reconditioned bus to transport and sleep members. The organization's trips to Walt Disney World, Washington and elsewhere were religious and recreational. It admitted its members spent only 20 percent of their time on religious activities and 80 percent on social and recreational. Because religious activities were incidental to recreation, the court ruled the organization did not qualify as a church.

The Internal Revenue Service usually has difficulty proving organizations are not religions. Their doctrine need not be plausible or credible or follow a wisp of traditional practices. Difficulties aside, the agency doesn't hesitate challenging obvious fraud.

Hubert Michaud paid an organization called Life Science Church $3,600 and received what it called a church charter and certificate as a minister. Life Science claimed if he took a poverty vow and gave his assets to his new church, he could deduct donations. The New Hampshire businessman bought into the scam, but his return preparer wouldn't. He fired that preparer and hired another. Michaud insisted on a charitable deduction of $192,000 for land he gave his church.

Later, the IRS caught up with Life Science founder William Drexler, who was convicted of various tax crimes. Armed with his list of Life Science customers, the agency started hunting for phony ministers. It found Michaud. The agency charged him with criminal tax evasion, saying he had no church and conducted no religious services.

Michaud argued the following:

  • IRS misconduct. He had told an agent, who examined an earlier return, he intended to deduct the land, and she didn't say he shouldn't. The judge said IRS employees are not obligated to warn taxpayers not to take deductions.
  • Conflict of interest. He said one of his three lawyers had worked for the IRS. A conflict of interest is a valid defense, the court said, if it would prevent the defendant from winning, but it didn't; he had two other lawyers. He served seven months of an 18-month sentence but refused to pay a $60,000 fine.
  • After a court demanded he pay, he posted $75,000 and appealed. The appeals court ruled against him. Now he had to pay the fine plus interest and the government's fees and costs or go to jail for five months and 29 days. He claimed he didn't have money to pay the fine. The court said he was no pauper: His annual salary after taxes was $359,000. The judge added, when Michaud filed this case, he posted $75,000 to argue he couldn't pay $60,000.

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