Do Churches Still Have Constitutional Rights?

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You would think not by the way the Grassley Investigation has proceeded. Can one man, with a lot of power… attack a church, or churches, with the full power of the government just because he doesn’t agree with the churches’ doctrine? Sadly, apparently so. It doesn’t make it right. But, without all of us standing up and saying, “No, you can’t do this,” it will continue to happen! Public servants are supposed to be accountable to the public… but if we don’t stand up and take them to task, they will continue unhindered to persecute those that they don’t approve of for religious reasons.

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“Senator Grassley of Iowa has asked six Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries to turn over to him a broad range of private church documents and information. In the case of one of the ministries, he has also asked for a list of the names and addresses of every minister whom the Church has paid to speak or perform music at the Church since 2004. The Senator has given no meaningful assurances that the information he receives will be kept from public disclosure. So what is really going on? What is the Senator up to? Why are some of the churches resistant to this? Why does this represent a threat to freedom of religion in America? What does this mean for the future of the church?

How Did This All Begin?

On November 5, 2007, Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters to six prominent Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries requesting that they provide certain information to him as the Ranking Member of the United States Senate Committee on Finance on or before December 6, 2007. The six churches the Senator targeted were:

* Without Walls International Church (Revs. Paula and Randy White)
* World Healing Center Church (Pastor Benny Hinn)
* Joyce Meyer Ministry (Revs. Joyce and David Meyer)
* New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Bishop Eddie Long)
* World Changers Church International (Dr. Creflo Dollar)
* Eagle Mountain International Church (Revs. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland)

The letters asked for a variety of information about the corporate structure and activities of each organization, and for specific information about each church’s compensation, accounting, and financial practices. Some of the Senator’s letters asked for the identity of a church’s board members, amounts paid to visiting ministers, speakers, and musicians, and donations made from other churches and ministries. In most cases, Senator Grassley’s questions asked for information that other churches are not required to disclose publicly. The information sought by Senator Grassley is also the type of information that would be treated as confidential information, not subject to public disclosure, if obtained by the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) from any other church.

The six targeted organizations do not represent a broad cross-section of religious organizations, nor do they represent a broad cross-section of Christian churches. Rather, the six targeted organizations are all large, successful Pentecostal-Charismatic churches that share a common theology that is centuries old. All six have prominent television ministries. And all six ministries under investigation preach the “Word of Faith” message, which is based on the religious belief that God wants His children to be spiritually, physically, and financially blessed, and that prosperity in all areas of one’s life is an outward sign of the fulfillment of God’s promises contained in the Bible.

On November 6, 2007, the day after Senator Grassley sent these letters, he issued a press release that likened the churches being investigated to other “tax-exempt groups” that the Senator has investigated, such as the NCAA, hospitals, and colleges and universities. Nowhere in this press release was any acknowledgement made of the unique constitutional protections afforded to churches, or to their members who tithe to fund the operations and activities of their church. To the contrary, the Senator’s press release suggested that these individuals who make up the Body of Christ have a relationship to their church that is no different than the relationship of a “donor” to an organization like the American Red Cross. The press release made the further troubling suggestion that the Senator believes it is his “obligation” to review the manner in which these churches have spent the tithes of their members.

Eagle Mountain International Church/Kenneth Copeland Ministries (“KCM”) was one of only two ministries that filed a timely response to Senator Grassley’s initial request for information by the December 6, 2007, deadline. The Joyce Meyer Ministry was the other. KCM’s response reflected a sincere and good faith effort by the Church to provide answers to as many of the Senator’s questions as possible without compromising the protections afforded to the Church by the United States Constitution and the Internal Revenue Code. KCM provided responses to 17 of the 42 questions Senator Grassley posed. Where KCM provided a partial answer or response, or did not answer a question asked by Senator Grassley, the Church determined that the question raised constitutional and/or statutorily based privacy and confidentiality concerns.

In its December 6, 2007, response, KCM stated its position that the most timely and efficient manner for Senator Grassley to obtain the requested information, without compromising the rights of the Church and those persons associated with it, is to request the information from the IRS. Such a request would be subject to longstanding IRS church-inquiry procedures and confidentiality protections under the Internal Revenue Code.

Specifically, the IRS could obtain the information Senator Grassley is seeking from the Church through a ‘church tax inquiry’ under section 7611 of the Internal Revenue Code. Senator Grassley himself introduced this special provision of the Internal Revenue Code in 1983 as part of the Church Audit Procedures Act, in recognition of the potential for government investigations into churches to infringe upon ‘the civil liberties of churches.’ At the conclusion of a properly conducted church tax inquiry by the IRS, Senator Grassley could request the IRS to send him the information obtained through the church tax inquiry. By proceeding in this manner, Senator Grassley could obtain the information he is seeking without treating KCM (or the other targeted ministries) in a disparate manner from other churches that enjoy these constitutional and statutory protections.

On March 11, 2008, Senator Grassley and Senator Baucus of Montana, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance (the ‘Committee’), sent a follow-up letter to four of the six ministries that received Senator Grassley’s November 5, 2007, letter: Without Walls International Church (Revs. Paula and Randy White), New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Bishop Eddie Long), World Changers Church International (Dr. Creflo Dollar), and Eagle Mountain International Church (Revs. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland). A Committee press release issued on March 12, 2008, asserted that, except for Without Walls International Church, these ministries had ‘not cooperated’ with Senator Grassley’s initial request. (No mention was made in the Committee’s Press Release of the information that KCM in fact provided to Senator Grassley on December 6, 2007.) The Committee’s press release further states that Senator Grassley’s questions were based on reports from watchdog groups, whistleblowers, and the media. No substantiation of these reports was set out in the Committee’s Press Release (or elsewhere). The March 11, 2008, letters take the position that Senator Grassley’s requests do ‘not infringe upon First Amendment rights,’ but no legal support is offered for this position. Finally, the letters indicate that the Committee may resort to ‘compulsory process’ if the requested information is not provided.

KCM responded to Senators Grassley and Baucus in a March 31, 2008, letter in which it declined to provide additional information in response to Senator Grassley’s request. KCM reiterated the Church’s position that the most timely and efficient manner for the Senators to obtain the requested information – without compromising the Church’s, its members’, partners’, and friends’ constitutional and statutorily based rights – is to request the information from the IRS. At the conclusion of a properly conducted IRS church tax inquiry, Senator Grassley could ask the IRS for the information obtained through that process. A request from Senator Grassley to the IRS would be covered by section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, which protects the privacy of information that the IRS obtains from all taxpayers. Senator Grassley would not be able to use information obtained by the IRS to subject the Church or its members to scrutiny by the public, but he would be able to fully use the information to accomplish his stated goal of determining whether the Church is complying with federal tax laws. If KCM were to provide the requested information directly to Senator Grassley or the Committee, however, the protections from public disclosure afforded to the Church under section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code would not apply.”

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