WASHINGTON (BP)–The National Religious Broadcasters delivered a letter to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley Dec. 3, expressing concern over a probe he is conducting into the financial records of six television ministries.
Although the six ministries are not members of NRB, the organization’s president, Frank Wright, said he nonetheless is disturbed about the “broader implications of this issue, not only for our members, but for all non-profit Christian ministries as well.” He also said Grassley’s request “goes far beyond a mere request for financial records necessary to scrutinize the charitable nature of [an] organization’s operations.”
In a letter dated Nov. 5, Grassley requested the six ministries provide their personal and ministry-related financial records. The leading Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, he gave the ministries a Thursday, Dec. 6, deadline.
The six ministries are those of Joyce Meyer; Benny Hinn; Paula and Randy White; Gloria and Kenneth Copeland; Eddie Long; and Creflo and Taffi Dollar. Most of them preach a so-called “health-and-wealth gospel” and at least some of them have been accused of using donor money to live luxurious lifestyles.
The ministries are tax-exempt and not required to submit their financial information to the Internal Revenue Service.
“This has nothing to do with church doctrine,” Grassley, who represents Iowa, wrote in his blog Nov. 7. “This has everything to do with the tax exemption of an organization. Is that tax exemption being used according to law, and is the money that’s donated under the tax exemption being used for legitimate, non-profit purposes?”
Whether it’s “using a private jet, driving a Rolls Royce or Bentley, or installing a $23,000 commode,” there is “obviously money going down the toilet,” he asserted.
“As a Christian myself, and a person who believes in tithing, I feel I have a right to know where my money goes,” he said. “If a person gets a tax deduction for a donation, the deduction and donation should be for a legitimate purpose.”
Grassley has a history of probing non-profit organizations, previously looking into the financial records of the Nature Conservancy, the Red Cross and the Smithsonian Institute, The Des Moines Register reported. He asked the ministries to provide, for instance, credit card statements; lists of expenses for second and third residences used by the ministers; the cost of hotels, travel and entertainment used for board meetings; and lists of private vehicles.
Wright argued that Grassley’s letter touched on “subjects as to which the First Amendment Religion Clauses provide protection from government surveillance, and intrusion.”
Craig Parshall, NRB’s senior vice president and general counsel, criticized Grassley’s letter, arguing that “more than three decades ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the wisdom of tax exemptions for non-profit religious organizations.”
“The court held that such a framework reinforced the required ‘insulating’ of church groups from excessive government oversight,” Parshall said, “but unfortunately Senator Grassley’s overly broad approach utilizes an axe rather than a scalpel in this delicate constitutional area, and also oversteps the IRS audit procedures which are designed for handling these kinds of issues.”
Parshall expressed hope Grassley’s letter is not a prelude to congressional hearings and possible new laws.
Grassley said he chose the six ministries based on specific complaints and media reports about practices at the six ministries.
On Nov. 28 Meyer’s ministry released a statement saying it would comply with Grassley’s request. The ministry said it is “not under obligation by law to submit this information” but that “in keeping with our own high standards of fiscal responsibility, our respect for the democratic process, and our established tradition of transparency with our ministry supporters, we are preparing the requested documents.”
Creflo Dollar, though, so far has not complied with Grassley’s request. Appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” Nov. 27, Dollar noted that the letter did not come in the form of a subpoena voted on by the entire committee.
“[W]e have not given him the information that he has requested, simply because we don’t believe we are under any legal obligations to have to do it when the IRS has already been given the authority to act as a tax examiner and not a committee,” Dollar said.
Paula White spoke with Larry King the previous night and didn’t say whether she would comply with Grassley’s request but did say, “My concern is, why is our faith being targeted as part of this inquiry when there are laws on the books and there is legal jurisdiction any time there is abuse in financial handling?”
Said Grassley, in his blog, “My job as a member of the tax writing Senate Finance Committee is to make sure the tax code is upheld and to make sure tax breaks for charitable work donations are not abused.”
Compiled by Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press, with reporting by Erica Simons, intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.