Two Christian ministries are refusing to meet today’s deadline for a Senate investigation into preachers’ salaries, perks and travel, the Associated Press has learned.
Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas, said in a statement to the AP today that he would not respond to the inquiry until next year.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for preacher Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in suburban Atlanta said yesterday that the investigation should be referred to the IRS or the Senate panel should get a subpoena for the documents.
Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent lengthy questionnaires a month ago to six ministries so he could review whether pastors were complying with IRS rules that bar excessive personal gain through tax-exempt work.
Only Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., has provided the detailed financial and board oversight information sought by Grassley.
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said yesterday in a conference call with reporters that he “can’t be impressed” by the argument from some of the preachers that the IRS already monitors them, because his past inquiries have unearthed information that the IRS never knew.
All the ministries preach a form of the “prosperity gospel,” the belief that God wants believers to reap material rewards for their faith.
Grassley has insisted his investigation “has nothing to do with church doctrine” and is strictly concerned with making sure nonprofit groups are following the law.
However, several religious-liberty watchdogs have said the scope of the inquiry is too broad and warned that it could be unconstitutional.
Ronn Torossian, a spokesman for Hinn, said in a statement that the preacher “plans to facilitate a response to Senator Grassley’s inquiry by Jan. 30th, and likewise notified the senator’s office of this intent on Nov. 20th.” Torossian said Hinn is “in full compliance with government agencies duly authorized to oversee churches and charitable organizations.”
Torossian would not elaborate.
Dollar has been the most vocal in his criticism of the probe. In a Nov. 27 letter obtained by the AP, Dollar attorney Marcus Owens wrote to Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, that the church is willing to comply with a “proper” request for information — but it should be handled by the IRS.
Owens, the former director of the IRS’s exempt organizations division, pointed to precedent: In the 1980s, a House subcommittee asked the IRS to review concerns about televangelists.
“A referral would permit Senator Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee to discharge their obligation to oversee federal tax administration without running the risk of government entanglement in the Church’s religious beliefs and practices,” the letter said.
An IRS review also would ensure privacy, Owens wrote. All IRS reviews are confidential, and Dollar has said he worries that a Senate probe might air sensitive information about salaries, among other things.
Failing a referral to the IRS, Owens requested that the committee seek subpoenas to “provide an appropriate legal context for the review.” With a subpoena, the church and its members could gain confidentiality protections.
Joyce Meyer Ministries expressed confidence last week that it would be found in “complete compliance” with financial regulations.
The organization also addressed one of the more salacious details in the letter from Grassley — its reported purchase of a $23,000 “commode with marble top.” The ministry said it was not a common toilet but a “a tall elegant chest of drawers,” and that the selling agent got the price wrong.
The other televangelists have been noncommittal in their public comments, but some have voiced strong objections that echo Dollar’s.
Bishop Eddie Long, who leads New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and Bishop Eddie Long Ministries in Lithonia, Ga., initially promised to “fully comply” with Grassley’s request. But a few days later, Long told his congregation the request was “unjust,” “intrusive,” and “an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights.”
The others targeted in the inquiry are Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla., and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas.
Owens said in an e-mail to the AP that while each ministry is “separately responding as it sees fit,” lawyers for the ministries have been in touch and share common concerns about Grassley’s request.
The letter from Dollar’s attorney describes the prosperity gospel as a “deeply held religious belief” grounded in Scripture and says the six churches are part of the “rich tapestry of religion in America” deserving of protection.
Refusals to turn over the information could lead to a court fight, giving a judge the authority to decide whether the committee is entitled to all the information it requested.
“Hopefully these organizations will work with us,” said Grassley, who has been investigating nonprofit compliance with IRS rules for years. “I don’t think I’ve had to issue a single subpoena in the five years that I’ve been trying to get cooperation from organizations.”
Some legal scholars believe the Senate is a proper forum to review religious nonprofit groups’ finances — although with caveats.
Congress has a legitimate interest in making sure nonprofit rules are followed because confidentiality rules make it hard to track IRS enforcement, said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, who advises religious groups on church-state issues.
“On the other hand, Congress is a very blunt instrument,” he said. “Congressional hearings are hardly models of due process, and they can pick on anything they want for any reason they want and that raises real concern. So there’s this pull in both directions.”