Some 750,000 religious nonprofit organizations in America are required by law to share their Form 990 tax returns with anyone who asks to see them. Form 990s reveal income, and also information such as the compensation of key executives.
But what if you don't want people-including Sen. Charles Grassley of the Senate Finance Committee-to see your tax returns? No problem. Just call yourself a church.
Grassley last year requested financial data from six religious nonprofits known for having big non-church businesses. All six call themselves churches, although only three hold Sunday services. The due date was Dec. 6, but a month later only two of the six had complied with Grassley's request (see below). One of the televangelists-Creflo Dollar of Atlanta-based World Changers Church International-went on Larry King Live and dared Grassley to get a subpoena or turn the matter over to the Internal Revenue Service.
Dollar's challenge to Grassley was a risky but carefully crafted response. If the matter goes to the IRS, it remains out of sight of the public-unless criminal charges are filed. If Grassley decides to issue subpoenas, the Republican senator risks alienating religious voters in a presidential election year.
At least Creflo Dollar has an actual church among the many organizations he runs. Not so with some of the others. Benny Hinn Ministries, another Grassley target, calls itself a church even though it doesn't hold regular Sunday services or engage in traditional church functions such as "marryin', buryin', and baptizing." Hinn garners more than $100 million annually, according to the Trinity Foundation, a ministry watchdog. No one knows for sure where Hinn's money goes, but an NBC Dateline investigation in 2002 found some of the money went to pay for private jets and $1,000-per-night hotel suites for Hinn and his family when he is on the road doing crusades.
The 'Grassley Six'
Kenneth & Gloria Copeland (Kenneth Copeland Ministries)
Joyce Meyer (Joyce Meyer Ministries)
Failed To Meet Deadline:
Creflo Dollar (World Changers Church International)
Benny Hinn (World Healing Center Church, Inc.)
Eddie Long (New Birth Missionary Baptist Church)
Randy & Paula White (Without Walls International Church)
SOURCE: Jan. 8, 2008, statement from Senate Finance Committee
What's the best way to prevent financial abuse? Self-policing? Government oversight? Bad publicity?
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), a ministry accrediting body that includes as members 3 percent of all religious nonprofits, recently started a church division. It's likely even a smaller fraction of the nation's 300,000 churches in America will join-and the churches that most need outside scrutiny are least likely to join.
Additional government regulation of churches is distasteful to both libertarians and evangelicals, but it may come if self-policing fails. The boldness with which four of the "Grassley Six" have ignored the senator's request for information has highlighted the inadequacy of existing law in protecting faithful, if gullible, donors.
Bad publicity can help. Joyce Meyer Ministries, stung by journalists' questions, has made positive changes, including greater financial disclosure. The ministry did not completely avoid Grassley's scrutiny, but it was able to respond quickly to his request for information.
The problem is huge. Religious organizations that provide very little information about their spending receive from donors at least $1 billion per year. Popular televangelists Rod Parsley, Joel Osteen, and Robert Schuller all refuse to disclose financial information to the public.