Praise and Dismay for Senate Scrutiny of Ministries' Finances
A United States Senate committee is demanding a detailed look into the alleged lavish lifestyles of six prosperity gospel ministries, stirring both kudos and cries of concern from religious and First Amendment experts.
"If your house is in order, you have nothing to fear and much to gain from this process," megapastor Joel Hunter told Christianity Today. Hunter is senior pastor of the 12,000-member Northland, A Church Distributed, outside Orlando, Florida.
Some, however, worry that the Senate could be setting bad precedent.
"James Madison would be telling us, 'Take Alarm! Take Alarm!''' Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things, told CT. "This is cause for alarm that a Senate committee would presume to directly exercise financial oversight of religious ministries."
Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters yesterday to six ministriesthose led by Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, Joyce Meyer, and Randy and Paula Whitedemanding detailed accounts of spending practices. None of the ministries must file the IRS financial disclosure Form 990 because they are designated as churches.
"Recent television reports and news articles regarding the possible misuse of donations made to religious organizations have caused some concern for the Finance Committee," Grassley wrote yesterday to the ministries.
Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, for example, must provide "a detailed explanation of personal use of assets" of their tax-exempt organizations, including land ownership, "jets, employees, facilities," all monthly expenses used to "purchase, furnish, and maintain all residences," expense accounts, all car expenses, cash payments, "domestic and overseas bank accounts," mineral leases, "procedures for handling cash received for crusades," among other things.
Such itemized requests to all six ministries must be answered by December 6, 2007. Normally tax and money investigations are done privately by the Internal Revenue Service.
"There has kind of been an end-run here," contends Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center. The Senate prying into church money matters could be a slippery slope, he said.
"It's legitimate for government to monitor whether or not the laws are being followed by ministries," said Haynes. "Having said that, this is an unusual approach. The danger here is that it can become a fishing expedition into areas where the First Amendment protects ministriesfor example, their beliefs and view of the gospel. They may be controversial or unorthodox or unpopular, but that is none of the business of government."'
Even if some doctrines seem highly questionable, that is not government business, said Haynes. Similar tensions exist for churches currently facing IRS reviews about political campaign spending.
By accepting the benefits of tax-exempt status, a church has "already given up some of their independence and autonomy," noted Haynes, "and agreed to have a certain amount of oversight by the government."
"There is a tug of war here," admitted Rodney Pitzer, managing director of research for MinistryWatch.org, which advises donors on charitable organizations' financial credibility.
Pitzer says donor have the right to know funds are well-handled, but the six ministries being targeted have no traditional means of accountabilitylike deacons or eldersto keep tabs on money matters.
Said Pitzer: "On the one side are the good, upstanding ministries that want to have no regulations because the minimal regulation will help them be more efficient to do their charitable work. But within that group, others are getting away with things they should not be doing."