Senator Awaiting Records of Ministries' Finances

New York Times/December 24, 2007

Six weeks after Senator Charles E. Grassley asked six well-known evangelistic ministries to provide information on how they spent donors' money, only two have complied.

The lawyers for one ministry have asked for more time from Mr. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, who sent letters to the organizations in early November. Three other ministries have not been in recent contact with the committee or have said they will not cooperate.

"This is early in the process," Mr. Grassley, of Iowa, said in an e-mail message last week. "If the ministries indicate a willingness to cooperate, I'll be glad to work with them on a rolling production of information. I hope all of the ministries will see that transparency is part of enjoying tax exemption and that they'll share information in that spirit."

The ministries contacted by Mr. Grassley's office preach a so-called prosperity gospel, among the most popular evangelistic messages on television and the Internet. Prosperity gospel assures followers that the more they give, including in the form of tithes to the church, the more they will receive from God. Some prosperity gospel preachers live lavishly, as proof of the abundance God can bring.

The leaders of two ministries contacted by Mr. Grassley's office who have answered his queries are Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Tex., and Joyce Meyer, who with her husband, David, runs Joyce Meyer Ministries from Fenton, Mo.

Popular with women for her no-nonsense brand of self-help, Ms. Meyer was asked by Mr. Grassley's office to explain the "tax-exempt purpose" of purchases including a "commode with marble top" bought for $23,000 for her headquarters.

"Our timely response to the senator's efforts to ensure the financial accountability of all nonprofits is a decisive demonstration of the high standard of fiscal responsibility that we hold ourselves to," Ms. Meyer said in a statement on her Web site. A spokeswoman said Ms. Meyer would make no other statements now.

Lawyers for Randy and Paula White contacted Mr. Grassley's office asking for more time, a spokeswoman for Mr. Grassley, Jill Gerber, said. The Whites started Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries in Tampa, Fla., but are now divorcing.

Lawyers for Benny Hinn of Benny Hinn World Healing Center Church, a faith-healing ministry based in Grapevine, Tex., that holds large crusades around the world, agreed to respond by Dec. 12 but did not do so and have not since been in contact, Mr. Grassley's spokeswoman said.

In an e-mail response to a request for comment, a spokesman for Mr. Hinn said that the church had been in touch with the Senate office and "plans to facilitate a response to Senator Grassley's inquiry by January 30th."

Bishop Eddie L. Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar Jr. of World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., have indicated they will not cooperate with the inquiry.

Mr. Dollar sent "a letter indicating that the ministry does not intend to provide information voluntarily and raised the idea of a subpoena," Ms. Gerber said in an e-mail message.

Lawyers for Bishop Long said in a statement that a letter he sent to Mr. Grassley asserted that the senator's request "clearly disregards the privacy protections of the church under law and appears to cross the line of constitutional guarantees for churches."

At the outset, some churches, including those outside the inquiry, argued that Mr. Grassley's inquiry violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But some legal and church scholars said that the government was within its rights to examine whether tax-exempt entities like churches are abiding by the law.

Church finances are generally private, because churches do not have to file a 990 form with the Internal Revenue Service as other nonprofits do. None of the ministries questioned by Mr. Grassley belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a 20-year-old accreditation agency that focuses on board governance and financial transparency and has 2,000 members.

Mr. Grassley began looking into the finances of nonprofits about six years ago, investigating organizations as diverse as the Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard. Because of his reputation, whistle-blowers inside and outside evangelistic ministries began contacting his office with information about two and half years ago, his aides said.

Mr. Grassley may send letters to other ministries in the future, aides said. Because of news media coverage of the letters to the six ministries, his office has been flooded with calls about them and other church organizations, too, the aides said.

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