Trinity gets ‘church’ status, a refund
HENDERSONVILLE — A ruling that means Sumner County and the city must refund the theme park-like Trinity Broadcasting Network complex here more than $300,000 in taxes ends an 11-year skirmish and gives the colorful owners much of what they’ve wanted — status as a church.
Under an administrative judge’s decision approved by a state commission last month, televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch have the state’s blessing to stop paying property taxes on their auditorium. It is familiar to millions of TBN viewers worldwide as one location of the Praise the Lord show, a glitz-filled mix of prayer, musical entertainment and requests for money.
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Their land also includes the home of the late country music great Conway Twitty and his Twitty City spread.
The Crouches didn’t get a wholesale property tax exemption. TBN must continue to pay on several other parcels found past the ribbon-like entrance banner proclaiming “Trinity Music City USA,” including the Gold, Frankincense & Myrrh Gift Shop, Solid Rock Bistro and the Twitty mansion.
“Obviously, we were hoping for 100% across the board, because Trinity is a church, but we understood the judge’s ruling and we have no objection to it,” said TBN attorney John Casoria, speaking from the international headquarters in Tustin, Calif.
Paul Crouch, son of Assemblies of God missionaries, founded TBN in 1973, taking over a struggling television station in Santa Ana, California to spread the gospel. He and his wife, Jan, hit upon on-air “Praise-a-Thons” in which they praised the Lord, played music and pleaded for donations to stay afloat and grow.
To get the message out, the couple still uses a blend of the Bible, entertainment and fundraising. The impassioned Jan Crouch has always been a standout beside her thin, business-like husband, with her waterfall of ultra-blonde hair, thick eye makeup and frequent tears.
From its base in California, TBN expanded to Tennessee with the Sumner County purchase in 1994; its broadcast center drew visitors, recording studios were set up and the company made plans for a theater.
The Crouches found that the Twitty home continued to draw country music fans, so they capitalized on that, too, to reach people. Tours there continued, and a small section of the complex’s gift shop, which includes inspirational books and videos, Bible-carrying dolls, glow-in-the-dark mugs and vitamins, also features Twitty shirts and postcards.
In the beginning, according to Sumner County Executive Hank Thompson and media reports at the time, Paul Crouch accepted an “entertainment” zoning for the property when TBN moved in and agreed to pay taxes.
Then the Crouches asked for a sign.
TBN wanted a highway sign to point visitors toward the complex, just as Twitty City had. But the Tennessee Department of Transportation said no, that churches don’t get signs.
Thompson said he went with Paul Crouch to try to change TDOT Commissioner Bruce Saltsman’s mind, but they got nowhere.
However, while some legitimate ministries and teachers (those who adhere to the orthodox teachings and practices of historical Christianity) appear on TBN, the network promotes such an incredible amount of heretical material – including extremist Word-Faith teachings – that it is often referred to as “The Blasphemy Network.”
He had pointed out that religion-based schools have signs, he said, and that this is a religious entertainment center that draws a hoard of money-spending visitors who could use directions.
Paul Crouch, he said, thought the government couldn’t have it both ways: either TBN paid taxes as an entertainment complex and got a sign or it shouldn’t have to pay taxes. Thompson said he agreed.
“They did what they had agreed to do,” said Thompson, who was Hendersonville’s mayor when TBN settled here. “They were paying. They were being good neighbors. They were fulfilling their agreement.
“It’s the worst example of the state not using common sense I’ve run into in 25 years,” said Thompson.
“The sign is what drove them over the edge, I think.”
TBN filed a request for exemptions as a church.
The Crouches were in Haiti, meeting the country’s new president and pushing to open a children’s hospital they’re building there, so a comment couldn’t be arranged, Casoria said Friday.
In October of 1995, however, Paul Crouch told The Tennessean:
“I wouldn’t even have asked for the tax exemption if the highway department had been fair with us and let us have a highway sign.”
A refund of about $300,000 won’t make a loud splash in the coffers of TBN, whose most recently available 990 IRS form shows it took in just over $184.3 million in revenues in 2003. Expenses totaled almost $113.2 million, meaning an excess of about $71.1 million for the year.
It held at least $311.6 million in securities in its investment portfolio, which included foreign television stations, an oil lease and a recreational vehicle park.
Casoria called the estimated $300,000 property tax refund “acceptable and fair” but said Tennessee’s laws are “probably one of the most stringent” of the states TBN deals with.
TBN fought the tax battle for more than 11 years, with requests to the State Board of Equalization and appeals. It made some headway, with taxes reduced along the way. But it was only last month that a state commission approved an administrative judge’s final decision that requires TBN to continue to pay a part of the assessed value of its properties, minus the auditorium as of Jan. 1999.
Neither the county, which collects about $66 million in property taxes, nor the city has expressed an interest in challenging the ruling, though officials aren’t thrilled with having to turn the money back.
Thompson said that the final refund, once the exact amount is determined, probably would have to come out of reserve funds.
“That’s a big lick, a substantial amount of taxes,” he said.
Hendersonville’s share of the refund should be about $20,000, said Marylou Piper, city finance director. If part of this year’s budget that is earmarked for tax refunds falls short, the money could come from a reserve fund with the Board of Mayor and Aldermen’s approval, she said.
Hendersonville Mayoral Assistant Don Long said the tourist traffic Trinity Music City brings in each year means money for the city and county, whether or not the full property tax is paid.
“They’re a very large organization and have a tremendous amount of visitors there every year,” he said.
The complex here is low-key on the outside, except at Christmas when “a million lights” glitter, Creches appear and wreaths and trees drip with ribbons, balls and angels.
Indoors year-round, however, a person can take a cobblestone walk, called Via Dolorosa, a re-creation of an ancient street in the old walled city of Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is said to have trod on the way to be crucified.
The narrow passageway with shop fronts alive with voices from another age leads eventually to a crucifixion scene high on a hill. Lightning flashes and thunder booms from the sound system.
Another building holds the virtual reality theater where, also for free, guests can watch TBN productions, including The Revolutionary, parts 1 and 2, about the life of Jesus.
“They don’t require a lot from the community,” Long said. “They sit there and do their thing.”