Joyce Meyer calls herself a woman of God, and maybe she is, but Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, wants to know how Meyer can justify spending $23,000 in tax-exempt religious contributions for a marble-topped commode. Meyer’s church, Joyce Meyer Ministries in Missouri, is one of six Christian ministries Grassley is investigating for possible abuses of their tax-exempt status. Another of Grassley’s targets is Without Walls International Church, a controversial megachurch based in Tampa.
Politicians should be careful when delving into religious matters, but Grassley has raised some legitimate issues about enforcement of tax laws. While religious institutions have constitutional protection against certain taxation, they are also expected not to abuse their special status. In fact, while Grassley is looking into such matters, he should add the Church of Scientology to the list.
Scientology’s shameful past includes a 25-year legal and psychological campaign against the IRS to be recognized as a tax-exempt religion. Scientology tactics included a criminal conspiracy in the 1970s to bug IRS offices, which led to 11 convictions of church members including founder L. Ron Hubbard‘s wife. Scientology filed dozens of lawsuits against the IRS, hired private investigators to dig up dirt on IRS employees and financed other IRS critics.
In an unprecedented concession in 1993, the IRS dropped its long-held position that Scientology operations where commercial, and granted the organization tax-exempt status as a religion. Mysteriously, that decision came after then IRS Commissioner Fred T. Goldberg Jr. held an impromptu private meeting with top Scientologist David Miscavige. Goldberg and the IRS still refuse to discuss their decision or release details of the settlement even though there is no legal obligation for them to remain silent. Perhaps Grassley could shed some light on what happened in that private meeting.
While federal law gives great leeway to recognized religions to collect money without paying taxes, there are some clear limitations. A religion’s income and assets cannot be used to benefit church insiders beyond their normal compensation, and must be used for charitable, educational or religious purposes rather than to enrich individuals.
So when Benny Hinn, leader of World Healing Center Church in Texas, gives himself a salary of more than $500,000 a year, buys a $10-million seaside mansion and vacations at church expense in jet-setter hot spots, Grassley has a right to ask a few questions. MinistryWatch.com, an independent religious watchdog group, reported those financial excesses (and more) by Hinn, whose church got a failing grade for financial transparency. Two other ministries on Grassley’s list also received an F from MinistryWatch.com: Kenneth Copeland Ministries in Texas and Creflo Dollar Ministries in Georgia.
The issue is not only one of legality but also fairness. Every tax dollar a ministry improperly avoids paying is a dollar added to everyone else’s tax bill. And the amounts are huge. In the four years leading up to its victory 1993 over the IRS, Scientology reported revenues of $1.1-billion, which have undoubtedly grown since then.
There is no reason to believe that Grassley, an independent-minded conservative, will carry his investigation too far or question legitimate tax-exemptions of the many religious organizations that use their money for charitable work. In fact, Congress could boost the credibility of religious giving by exposing those who abuse people’s generosity for personal gain.