TAMPA – Randy and Paula White, the now-divorced founders of Without Walls International Church, still have not answered the questions asked by a U.S. senator looking into the tax-exempt status of their ministry’s finances.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate finance committee, is waiting for four of the six ministries to provide the information he requested in November about lavish spending and questionable expenditures. The deadline to respond was Dec. 6.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
“It’s a new year and the ministries that have chosen not to cooperate have a chance to see the inquiry in a new light,” Grassley said in a prepared statement issued Tuesday. “This has nothing to do with church doctrine. It’s only about tax-exempt policy.”
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Only two of the six – Kenneth Copeland Ministries and Joyce Meyer Ministries – have delivered packages of material to the senator’s office.
The Whites, whose Tampa-based church operations and international TV ministry are being scrutinized, declined to comment to the Tribune through their newly hired public relations company in New York.
The other targeted evangelists are Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International, who sent a letter to Grassley indicating that the ministry does not intend to provide information voluntarily and raised the question of a subpoena; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc., whose attorneys at first promised to respond by Dec. 12 but have had no contact with the senator since leaving a message at the office Dec. 13; and Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, who indicated an unwillingness to cooperate through his attorneys in a letter received by Grassley last month.
Attorneys for Long issued a statement that said Grassley’s request “disregards the privacy protections of the Church under law and appears to cross the line of Constitutional guarantees for churches.”
Speaking for Without Walls, public relations spokesman Juda Engelmayer released a statement that said the church has been in dialogue with Grassley’s office through its legal counsel in “preparation for a reply” to the questions.
“Out of respect for the process we will not disclose the nature of those conversations or the substance of our response to the Senator at this time,” Engelmayer wrote. “However, we look forward to productive discourse with Senator Grassley’s office in anticipation of a speedy resolution of this matter.”
In individual letters to the ministries’ leaders, Grassley asked specific questions based on information given to his staff and from media reports. He questioned the use of private jets by some churches and luxury items purchased by some ministries, such as Joyce Meyer‘s $23,000 antique bathroom cabinet.
“Those are reasonable questions for church members to ask, but not a congressman,” said Ted Olsen, managing editor at Christianity Today, the nation’s leading evangelical magazine.
“We’re driving down a road very quickly into a realm of questions that the government has no right to ask,” he said.
Last month, Randy White took a defiant stand against the inquiry during a church service, telling his congregation that the investigation was an assault on their faith. He said the church has not broken any laws or misspent money.
In November, Paula White appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” She acknowledged the ministry owned a jet and defended the “prosperity gospel,” a belief that God wants to bless the faithful with earthly riches. But she said her calling has “never been about money.”
“Financially, I believe that you should have enough to do the assignment that you feel is part of your life,” she said.
Lee Grady, editor of Charisma, another publication geared toward Christian evangelicals, wrote in a recent column that in his 15 years at the magazine, he has never experienced such “intense spiritual turbulence” among the faithful.
“Recent religious scandals have so tarnished our credibility that we have become a curious freak show,” he wrote. “Many unbelievers now associate ministers with wife-swapping, wife-beating, no-fault divorce, gay affairs and $10,000-a-night hotel rooms. We need a Holy Ghost housecleaning.”
In the Jan. 15 issue of Charisma, Grady said he will commend the ministers who complied with Grassley’s request and will urge the others to also comply.
“The Bible says if you’re doing nothing wrong, you’ve got no reason to fear the government,” he told the Tribune. He said Grassley is a Christian with no intent to persecute the church.
“I think all Christians want our ministries to operate with integrity,” Grady said. “And I can tell you that most of our readers are getting tired of money-focused celebrity Christianity.”
An organization that champions religious freedom has come out in support of Grassley’s inquiry.
“If there is fraud, then it needs to be brought out,” said Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty in Maryland. “Cloaking yourself in religion doesn’t prevent you from being investigated.”