How do you legally start a religion?

Starting a new religion may seem daunting, but it is possible if you follow the proper steps. There are legal requirements and procedures involved with establishing a new religious organization. With some planning and effort, you can create your own belief system and build a community of followers. This article will provide a step-by-step guide to legally starting a religion in the United States.

Why Start a Religion?

There are many reasons why an individual or group may want to found a new religion. Some of the most common motivations include:

  • To share a new set of religious beliefs and practices
  • To fill a spiritual need not met by existing religions
  • To build a community around shared values and ideals
  • To provide followers with a comprehensive worldview and way of life
  • To reform or diverge from an established religion
  • To gain tax-exempt status and other benefits granted to religious organizations

Starting a new religion allows the founder(s) to codify their beliefs, attract followers, and build an organizational structure to support the growth of the religion. It also gives them more control over the religion’s messaging and future direction.

Define Your Beliefs and Practices

The first step in starting a religion is to define the belief system and practices of the new faith. The IRS requires all religious organizations to have “a recognized creed and form of worship.” To meet this requirement, you’ll need to develop:

  • A statement of faith or creed outlining the core tenets of the religion
  • Rules, codes or principles defining acceptable behavior for followers
  • Rituals, ceremonies, prayers, meditation practices and other forms of worship
  • A mission and purpose explaining the aims of the religion and why it exists

Take time to think deeply about the theology, moral vision and observances that will form the foundation of your religion. Write out your beliefs in detail to create official doctrine. Make sure the belief system and prescribed behaviors conform to the laws where you intend to practice.

Choose a Name

Pick an official name for your religion that reflects its purpose and values. The name should be unique enough to distinguish it from existing religions, but also descriptive and informative to outsiders.

Some examples of religious names:

  • Christianity – Followers of Christ
  • Islam – Submission to God
  • Scientology – Study of knowing
  • Raëlism – Followers of Raël

You can’t use a name that is already widely associated with another established religion. Do some research to make sure the desired name is available and not trademarked or owned by another group.

Organize the Structure

To operate smoothly, new religions need to establish an organizational structure and clear leadership roles. Important considerations include:

  • Founder(s) – Individual or small group that founded or co-founded the religion. They may take on continuing leadership roles.
  • Headquarters – Central location that serves as the main administrative center.
  • Clergy – Authorized priests, ministers, rabbis or other religious leaders qualified to perform rituals, teach doctrine and tend to followers.
  • Governing body – Group responsible for establishing policy, managing assets and overseeing the religion’s affairs.
  • Congregations – Local places of worship led by clergy to serve adherents in specific geographic areas.

You’ll need to decide how much authority will be centralized at headquarters versus delegated out to local congregations. Find and appoint initial leaders to fill the needed roles in the religion’s structure.

Write Founding Documents

To apply for tax-exempt status and provide a record of your beliefs, you’ll need to compose articles of incorporation and bylaws.

Articles of incorporation legally establish the religion as an organization and must include:

  • The official name of the religion
  • Purpose and mission statement
  • Name(s) and address(es) of the founder(s)
  • Registered business address

Bylaws outline the internal operating procedures:

  • Membership policies
  • Leadership roles and responsibilities
  • How leaders are appointed or elected
  • How decisions will be made
  • Policies and codes of conduct
  • Financial procedures
  • How assets will be distributed should the religion dissolve

Draft clear, thorough bylaws to anticipate any points of confusion and define the parameters of the religion. Keep copies of these documents in a safe place.

File for Tax-Exempt Status

To be recognized as a tax-exempt religious organization, you must file paperwork with the IRS. The primary benefit of tax-exempt status is not having to pay income tax on donations, tithes, dues and other contributions received.

To qualify, a religion must meet IRS requirements such as:

  • Existing for religious purposes rather than commercial enterprise
  • Avoiding political campaign participation or substantial lobbying
  • Not providing excessive benefits or compensation to private individuals
  • Operating legitimately as a non-profit entity

The IRS does not judge the content of religious beliefs, but does require all traits of a bona fide religion to be present. The application process can take many months, so file paperwork early once your religion is established.

Create a Membership Process

Decide who can join your religion and outline a procedure for new converts to signify their commitment. Possibilities include:

  • Baptism or initiation ritual
  • Completion of prescribed courses or training
  • Formally accepting the beliefs and code of conduct
  • Making a declaration of faith in front of witnesses or clergy

Have a standard membership agreement that adherents must sign showing they’ve accepted the principles of the religion. Keep records on all members and issue certificates, id cards or other documentation.

Acquire Resources

To support routine operations and future expansion, you’ll need to build up resources such as:

  • Funding – Seek tithes, donations, grants and income from investments.
  • Real estate – Purchase or rent space for a headquarters, worship centers, lodging and other facilities.
  • Staff – Hire paid administrative personnel, clergy, educators, outreach coordinators and other positions.
  • Literature – Create texts, books, websites and media to teach your doctrine.
  • Supplies – Obtain ritual items, vestments, music and other materials needed for services and ceremonies.

Build up reliable sources of funding and equip your facilities appropriately before launching full-scale operations.

Spread Awareness

To attract new converts, implement public outreach strategies:

  • Create a website explaining your beliefs and practices.
  • Distribute literature, videos and information requests.
  • Network and share your message through social media.
  • Host events, lectures and informal gatherings open to seekers.
  • Visit colleges, community centers and other venues to present your theology.
  • Issue press releases about your religion’s founding, upcoming activities, etc.

Focus on delivering a message aligned with your beliefs and growing your following organically. Avoid overly pushy or aggressive tactics.

Launch Congregations

As interest and membership grow, open local worship centers or congregations in different areas. Establish regular schedules for services, rituals, prayer meetings, classes and other events. Hire qualified clergy to provide spiritual guidance to adherents in each region.

Congregations give followers a local religious community and direct access to teachers and fellow believers. Each location can start small and expand as needed.


Creating a new religion from the ground up requires vision, careful planning and commitment. Follow the necessary steps to legally establish your beliefs and practices, structure, documents, status, membership process, resources, outreach approach and congregations. While starting a religion takes considerable work and resources, it can be incredibly rewarding to see your spiritual community blossom. Approach founding a faith with patience and dedication to see your beliefs spread and positively impact lives.

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