Creflo Dollar’s lawyers reviewing senator’s letter; Eddie Long says he’ll comply
A prominent Atlanta preacher is challenging requests from a powerful senator for detailed financial information on his ministry.
The Rev. Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in College Park said his team of legal experts is reviewing a request for financial records from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), head of the Senate Finance Committee.
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Dollar wants to know if Grassley or the committee has authority to request the records and if the request infringes on religious liberty.
“Are we saying the First Amendment [which protects churches from government intrusion] is null and void by allowing this to happen?” Dollar asked.
Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia said Tuesday he will comply with Grassley’s request. Long was the other Atlanta minister, among six nationally, who got letters from the senator asking for the information.
But J. David Epstein, a Philadelphia tax attorney for Long, noted that the Church Audit Procedures Act provides significant protections to churches during Internal Revenue Service audits. It was enacted in 1984, after a church complained about what it perceived to be harassment by the IRS.
Grassley sponsored the act.
His letter doesn’t mention the IRS.
But Epstein said the committee appears to be doing the IRS’s job in asking questions about salaries, spending, perks and subsidiary organizations.
He said that, when the IRS asks questions, religious organizations’ answers are covered by an “absolute confidentiality privilege,” which means the answers cannot be shared with anyone else.
Epstein wondered if the Senate committee intends to adhere to the same conditions.
Epstein added that he wishes the Senate Finance Committee would “explain what’s their real reason for this. This is something that’s brand new and has never happened before.”
Their position gets some support from Richard Hammar, editor of the Church Law & Tax Report, who said Grassley’s letters pit constitutional protection of religious liberty against the interest of the government in ensuring religious organizations comply with tax laws.
The tax code exempts charities, including ministries, from federal taxation so long as they meet requirements, such as not paying unreasonable compensation, Hammar said.
“This is the main concern that Senator Grassley is addressing,” he said.
“Certainly, at some point, a Senate investigation may cross the line from gathering information to harassment, but the location of that line is not clear,” said Hammar, a lawyer and certified public accountant in Springfield, Mo.
Grassley’s Nov. 5 letter asks for financial records from Dollar, Long, the Rev. Benny Hinn of Texas, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Texas, Randy and Paula White of Florida and David and Joyce Meyer of Missouri. All are well-known television ministers whose lavish lifestyles have been questioned by media, whistle-blowers and third parties, Grassley’s staff said.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which has oversight of non-profits.
The letters say he wants to ensure money spent on the lifestyles of the rich and famous ministers falls within the boundaries of tax codes and that donors’ money is going where they expect.
The letters mention Rolls Royce cars, overseas bank accounts, private jets and planes, donated jewelry, and in the case of Joyce Meyer, a $23,000 commode.
The request is voluntary at this point. The committee has subpoena power, but the letters were from Grassley, not the committee.
“We can recognize that Congress has a right to gather information concerning religious organizations’ compliance with the tax code, but this right must be limited in order to protect the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom,” Hammar said.
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that, because the IRS is constrained by the Church Audit Procedures Act, it may need the help of congressional oversight to look into church finances.
“I don’t think this step by Senator Grassley has violated the constitutional rights of anyone,” Lynn said. Lynn is a United Church of Christ minister and the organization lobbies to make sure the wall of separation between religion and government is a strong one.
“Senator Grassley has the right to ask people for information when he’s clearly not just on a fishing expedition.”
Ken Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, noted that Congress has investigated other non-profits such as universities, the United Way, the American Heart Association and hospitals. The ECFA is a voluntary membership organization that sets accounting, transparency and operating standards for ministries. It has more than 2,000 members. None of the ministries in question belong to it.
“It isn’t unusual at all for the Senate Finance Committee or the House Ways and Means Committee to get involved in tax issues such as these,” Behr said.
But Behr noted that the questions posed to the six ministries by Grassley read just like questions the IRS would be asking an organization it was investigating. And there is no prohibition from the congressional committee sharing any information it receives from the ministries with the IRS.
“Many of the questions they’re asking are right up the alley for the IRS,” Behr said. “The committee could just be teeing it up for them.”
Dollar said Grassley’s attempts to protect donors is prudent. But Dollar already allows members to come in and look over the ministry’s books.
But not outsiders.
If the church decides to send the information along, “[Grassley] will find nothing wrong or out of place,” Dollar said.
“I understand why people are interested. But if [Grassley’s] objective is to protect the donor and the donor is being protected and transparency is being provided to the donor, in all honesty what business is it of somebody else who does not make an investment in [the church]?” Dollar said.
“It’s no different than making an investment in the stock market. If you are not making an investment you probably won’t get that information.”