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Is prosperity a blessing from God, or a crime?

A Senate probe into the use of church donations may pit tax laws against religious freedom.

November 12, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — In the Rev. Dollar's chapel last week, a man in jeans and a baseball jersey bowed his head and opened his wallet. In front of him, a woman in nursing scrubs leaned on her Bible to write a check. And when the congregation stood up in prayer, some -- speaking in tongues -- waved collection envelopes in the air.

Creflo A. Dollar, senior pastor of World Changers Church International, preaches that God will reward the faithful with material riches. It is a gospel that has won the flamboyant preacher a 25,000-strong congregation -- and a Rolls-Royce, a multimillion-dollar mansion and a private Gulfstream III jet.

Now a Senate committee is investigating whether Dollar and leaders of several other mega-churches have illegally used donations to fund opulent lifestyles.

In a move that some contend could violate the separation of church and state, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has sent letters to six high-profile mega-churches, including Dollar's in College Park, Ga., requesting that they hand over records of salaries, expense accounts, credit cards, cars and airplanes.

"Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey," Grassley said in a telephone interview. "Do these ministers really need Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to spread the Gospel?"

Grassley has some specific concerns. For example, he wants Paula and Randy White, pastors of the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla., to document any tax-exempt cosmetic surgery. And he wants Joyce Meyer, who runs Joyce Meyer Ministries from Fenton, Mo., to explain the tax-exempt purpose of a $23,000 "commode with marble top."

Some of the ministers, who are not legally required to respond, have agreed to submit their tax records by Dec. 6. Dollar, however, has taken a stand, announcing that he will consult with lawyers to determine whether the request infringes on constitutional protections of religious liberty.

"It could affect the privacy of every community church in America," he said.

Scholars have long raised ethical and religious concerns about televangelist ministers who preach the prosperity gospel -- the idea that material riches are an expression of God's favor.

Grassley, a Christian, said that he believed in the idea of a "humble church and a humble minister spreading the Gospel" but that the inquiry was not motivated by his personal beliefs. Rather, he said, it is part of a broader concern about the transparency of nonprofit organizations. In recent years, the committee has probed the financial records of United Way, the American Red Cross, the Smithsonian and the Nature Conservancy.

"I have a constitutional responsibility to see that taxes are being enforced," Grassley said. "Churches are no different to other nonprofit groups -- they have to abide by tax rules."

Part of the difficulty, observers say, is that tax rules have not caught up with the fact that many ministries across the U.S. now operate as corporations. Mega-church pastors run multimillion-dollar enterprises, selling not just Bibles, DVDs and paintings, but gym memberships, nutrition classes and the use of banquet facilities. Some refer to themselves not just as pastors but as CEOs.

"They are taking market principles, setting themselves up as corporations, and yet they don't want to be taxed -- they don't want to have accountability," said Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University. "They are blurring the line between profit and nonprofit."

Though most nonprofits have to file IRS 990 forms detailing salary and expenses, religious organizations are exempt. The Internal Revenue Service requires that ministers' compensation be "reasonable" -- that pastors do not gain excessive compensation from tax-exempt work.

Mega-church followers say those who criticize their pastors' perks do not understand their symbolic value.

"Yes, a minister turns heads when he drives a Bentley," said Democratic state Rep. Randal Mangham, a member of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., one of the ministries being investigated. "But that's good. It's important for kids to see you don't have to sell drugs to drive a nice car."

Connie Cotton, 41, a longtime member of World Changers, said, "We give to our pastor because he's a true man of God. He needs a jet to go around the world and preach the Gospel."

Dollar's defiance has won him support from ministers across the nation, many of whom fear that such an investigation could represent a first step toward greater government regulation. Even among those who welcome the scrutiny -- arguing that a Senate investigation is long overdue -- there is concern that the inquiry could lead to greater oversight of all churches.

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