Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa recently demanded that popular religious leaders Creflo Dollar, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, and Benny Hinn, among others, comply with an unprecedented congressional request for their financial records.
Pro-family leaders I have spoken to tell me they cannot recall a similar previous instance in which a congressional committee targeted major ministries under threat of subpoena. The ministries have been asked to produce financial records and internal documents to disprove their alleged guilt, about what exactly is not clear.
Congress has a legitimate role to play in oversight of our laws, including tax laws governing churches. But the targeting of these ministries by Grassley has a “chilling effect” on the free exercise of religion, which is guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is why churches are exempt from taxation in the first place — to prevent the government from using its taxing power to constrain the freedom of religion.
Some of the leaders, including Hinn, have indicated that they will cooperate with Grassley’s “request.” Others, including Dollar and Kenneth Copeland, have so far refused, claiming the request is a violation of the First Amendment, and worse. Copeland sent a letter to supporters saying, “The enemy is not going to steal what the Lord had won through this ministry, and he is not going to use this attack to bring harm to the rest of the churches and and ministries in America.”
Copeland is correct about the possible fallout here. Grassley’s action opens a Pandora’s box of possible future investigations. What other politically incorrect church leaders and theological schools of thought will the U.S. Senate choose to target for investigation?
What about the black liberation theology popularized by Barack Obama’s controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright? Wright has retired to a $1.6 million home in a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago — certainly a lavish lifestyle that seems equally ripe for such an investigation.
Or what about the Hare Krishna temple in Grassley’s home state of Iowa, or the wealthy sect of Scientology, which is supported by Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta?
The list of possible investigations targeted at unpopular religious groups is endless.
THAT IS WHY CONGRESS outlawed political witch hunts when it passed the Church Audit Procedures Act in 1984. The Act prevents the Internal Revenue Service from launching a church tax inquiry unless a “high level Treasury official” reasonably believes there is cause. And it protects the church from politically-motivated leaks during the examination. Confidentiality is assured to the ministry in question.
Grassley’s rifle-shot approach and his very public flailing of these evangelical churches violates the spirit of this law, which he supported. The Act represents the spirit of American justice — investigate crimes, not people. Senators are now ignoring the very laws Congress passed by eliminating the IRS middleman and conducting the audit themselves.
What remains to stop the harassment of churches and legitimate ministries by any high-level elected official now that the Senate Finance Committee has demonstrated the ability of Congress to side step the Church Audit Procedures Act and haul up church leaders to satisfy popular prejudices, or a scandal-hungry liberal media?
The civil libertarian left and their allies in the press are very vocal in their warnings of government power when it comes to violations of civil liberties. But where were those liberal civil libertarians and the “watchdog media” when these evangelical ministries were targeted by headline-grabbing politicians and when every major conservative advocacy organization in Washington D.C. found itself under an IRS investigation in recent years?
Their silence this time is further proof that anti-Christian bigotry is the last acceptable form of bigotry in America today. It’s sad to see a Senate committee, including Senator Grassley, playing into the hands of those who despise religion.