Don't forget the Constitutional questions

JoyceMeyerSen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is investigating six powerhouse prosperity-gospel televangelists to determine whether they are complying with federal tax laws. On Monday he sent letters to Benny Hinn, the fantastically named Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer and three others who flaunt the earthly wealth provided to them by their followers. A few local reporters have been a bit ahead of the coverage curve on this story because they were already reporting on the ministries. Frank Lockwood has already posted a number of updates, including an interview with the colorful Ole Anthony:

Anthony, a Christian who has dedicated much of his life to investigating the fundraising tactics and luxurious lifestyles of many prominent TV preachers, has turned over massive amounts of documents to investigators.

Anthony sounded somber during a brief interview Wednesday morning. "I feel very sad about this. what I hope will happen is church leaders in America will stand up and say 'Enough' and put pressure on them [the televangelists] to reform themselves. I don't want the government to do it. I want the church to do it."

Lockwood also reposted an item from January about evangelist Kenneth Copeland (pictured with his wife, Gloria), who received a $2.1 million gift for his 70th birthday from fellow evangelists (including another delightfully named fellow, Happy Caldwell) and their churches. The item was headlined "What do you give a televangelist who has everything?" Nice. Lockwood also has links to the Grassley letters, should you want to read them.

Another reporter who had a good local angle on the story is Deirdre Shesgreen of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Joyce Meyer is from the area and the paper ran a big expose of her $124-million-a-year ministry four years ago. Much of what Grassley requested information on comes from that series, Shesgreen reports, including:

-- A "detailed accounting" of all her and her husband's expense-account items, including clothing and cosmetic surgery.

-- Information about any overseas bank accounts and deposits made outside the U.S. after international evangelical crusades.

-- The tax-exempt purpose of items purchased for her ministry's headquarters, such as a $23,000 marble-topped commode, a $30,000 conference table and an $11,219 French clock.

CopelandsShesgreen's article is fair and informative, getting responses from Meyer's team that the ministry voluntarily undergoes audits each year and mentioning Grassley's stated motivation:

"I don't want to conclude that there's a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code." . . .

Federal law grants churches tax-exempt status and excludes them from reporting requirements, but prohibits leaders and founders of such ministries from dipping into the organizations' accounts for their own personal use. Expenses of any tax-exempt organization are supposed to further the cause or goals of that entity.

She even devoted a section to explaining the prosperity gospel.

The thing that I would like answered about this whole issue, though, is whether increased oversight of the billion-dollar media ministry industry is something the First Amendment permits, or what possible tension there is between these televangelists, federal tax laws and the Free Exercise Clause. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, according to our Constitution.

I could not have less regard for these modern-day Elmer Gantry hucksters, but is the federal government the right arbiter of what is appropriate religious expression and what isn't? I'd love to get more legal feedback in these stories about the possible fallout of a Senate investigation into televangelists.

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