An important issue is emerging from the televangelism scandals: the hidden conflict between the legitimate right of religious ministries to protect themselves against inordinate government intervention and the legitimate right of government (and the taxpayers it represents) to have accurate tax information. As radio evangelist Robert A. Cook concisely stated to Congressman J. J. Pickle (D-Tex.) of a House Ways and Means subcommittee that was investigating the funding practices of Christian broadcasters: “We will answer any questions that you are constitutionally authorized to ask.”

Ministries have a right to carry on their work without inordinate governmental interference. However, tax-exempt status places special responsibility upon organizations whose receipts are nontaxable, and donations to which are tax deductible. The law gives these organizations privileged status, and thus they face a special moral requirement.

The tax-exempt status of an organization requires that it operate exclusively for religious or charitable purposes. In turn, donors are allowed to deduct contributions from their taxable income. To retain this status, the organization is required to serve a not-for-profit public purpose, refrain from lobbying and political campaigning, and from enhancing the wealth of any private individual. If the organization has earnings not related to religious purposes, these earnings are subject to taxes.

If ministries abuse their privileges, the government has a responsibility to investigate. If one who represents a religious organization takes more than a fair share of its income for personal benefit, the public has a legitimate interest, donors have a right to know how funds were administered, and the press ...

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