Evangelists: Grassley Probe Chills Religious Liberty

Baptist Press | Monday, April 7, 2008

Evangelists: Grassley Probe Chills Religious Liberty

April 7, 2008

WASHINGTON -- Lawyers for "prosperity gospel" televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar have told U.S. senators that they will not comply with a probe into their ministries because it threatens religious freedom rights.

Letters on behalf of Copeland and Dollar were sent March 31 to inform members of the Senate Finance Committee of the noncompliance, contending that the probe was based in part on the targeting of teachers from the "word of faith" movement. The lawyers said Copeland and Dollar not only objected to the investigation's potential infringement of the First Amendment but also the senators' failure to operate through the current process provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Copeland and Dollar's ministries are two of six asked to provide personal and ministry-related financial records in a probe initiated in November by Sen. Charles Grassley, R.-Iowa, the Finance Committee's minority leader. Sen. Max Baucus, D.-Mont., the Finance Committee's chairman, joined Grassley March 11 in calling for the ministries to cooperate. They set a March 31 deadline for compliance.

The other targeted televangelists – Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, Eddie Long, and Randy and Paula White – provided the requested documents by March 31 or pledged to do so.

"Word of faith" teaching normally includes the "prosperity gospel," which asserts that the Bible promises physical and financial blessings to followers of Christ. Evangelical critics of the teaching, however, say such doctrine mistakenly equates God's promises of blessing with temporal, materialistic success.

Grassley has said his questions of the televangelists were based on accounts of abuses from watchdog organizations and whistleblowers, as well as investigative news reports. Accusations of contributions being used to support lavish lifestyles have been leveled against at least some of the televangelists.

The fact that all the televangelists being investigated are part of the "word of faith" movement suggests the probe is on shaky ground regarding the First Amendment's protection of free religious exercise, Copeland and Dollar's lawyers said.

"The selective investigation only of churches that preach the 'Word of Faith' message raises significant concerns as to whether the inquiry is aimed at publicly questioning the religious beliefs of the targeted churches, their preachers and their members," lawyer Shane Hamilton of Washington, D.C., wrote on behalf of Copeland.

Writing for Dollar, lawyer Marcus Owens, also of Washington, D.C., said it appears the ministries were chosen for investigation "because of Senator Grassley's distaste for, or disagreement with, these churches' theology and religious practices."

Both ministries said they would comply with an examination by the IRS under the protections it provides.

Hamilton's letter on behalf of Copeland said the ministry provided substantial or complete answers to 17 of the 42 questions asked by Grassley but balked at the others because of constitutional and other legal concerns. Dollar did not answer any questions.

Grassley said he would continue his dialogue with the ministries of Copeland and Dollar.

Grassley's inquiry called for the televangelists to provide such documents as credit card statements, expenses for their secondary residences, gifts given by the ministries and lists of private automobiles.

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has encouraged cooperation by the televangelists, but the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) has expressed concerns about the probe's implications for ministries.

None of the six ministries is a member of either ECFA or NRB.

The names of the televangelists and their ministries, plus the locations of their headquarters, are: Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Copeland Ministries, Newark, Texas; Creflo Dollar, World Changers Church International, College Park, Ga.; Eddie Long, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Lithonia, Ga.; Joyce Meyer, Joyce Meyer Ministries, Fenton, Mo.; Benny Hinn, Benny Hinn Ministries, Grapevine, Texas; and Randy and Paula White, Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries, Tampa, Fla.

Compiled by Baptist Press Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.
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