Politics

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Steve Inskeep is in Iowa for today's Democratic debate on public radio.

Some of the country's largest churches preach the virtues of wealth. They raise millions of dollars and in some cases the ministers live in luxury. Half a dozen of these churches have been called for an accounting by the Senate Finance Committee. The committee's top Republican, Senator Charles Grassley, wants to know whether the churches' spending violates their tax-exempt status. The churches' responses are due this week.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The churches are huge. The congregations are in the tens of thousands. The buildings are like magnificent stadiums, and the pastors are larger than life.

For example, Reverend Creflo Dollar - you heard the name right. Reverend Dollar preaches the prosperity gospel, the belief that wealth is a blessing from God.

Reverend CREFLO DOLLAR (Christian World Changers Ministries): When we are prosperous people, we are responsible for going in, going back and impacting somebody else's life that's down. That's our job, to pick people up. But listen, how are you going to pick somebody up when you're down yourself?

LOHR: Reverend Dollar runs World Changers International Church just south of Atlanta. In a DVD called "Does God Want You to Be Poor?" Dollar says Jesus was not poor. His disciples were not poor. And he says faith can transform poverty into an abundant life.

Rev. DOLLAR: I tell you, it's good to know that you serve a God that can get you out of debt, a God that can get you all the things you need, and a God that can give you enough for you to enjoy life. Amen.

LOHR: Reverend Dollar did not respond to requests for an interview. At a recent bible study, he encouraged members to open a savings account. But it's the extravagant pattern of spending at megachurches that led Grassley to send letters to six ministries, including this one, with inquiries about their financial records.

The others include Bishop Eddie Long Ministries in Georgia, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn Ministries in Texas, Joyce Meyer Ministries in Missouri, and Paula White Ministries in Florida.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): There's enough questions being raised that we felt it should be further investigated.

LOHR: Grassley says there have been complaints about the pastors' extravagant lifestyles and questions about whether the churches' tax-exempt status is being abused. That includes the personal use of Rolls Royce cars, private jets, and multimillion-dollar homes. The Senate committee is also looking into exorbitant salaries, so-called love offerings, or cash payments to ministers, a justification for layovers in Hawaii and the Fiji Islands, and in one case the purchase of a $23,000 commode with a marble top.

Even since Grassley began seeking answers from the churches a few weeks ago, he says someone approached his staff with new information.

Sen. GRASSLEY: And he gave us just one example, that an individual always had to stay in a presidential suite when he traveled and that the cost could be as high as $5,000. Now, you know, maybe that's not illegal, but it may raise questions about whether it's the right expenditure of money.

LOHR: Some ministers have questioned the investigation. Bishop Eddie Long called it unjust and an attack on religious freedom and property rights. Long declined to talk further.

Mr. KEN BEHR (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability): Most of the churches in the country do not file a financial statement. We certainly encourage it. But most churches do not have that kind of level of transparency that Senator Grassley is looking for.

LOHR: Ken Behr is president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. None of the churches belong to his group. Behr says the Senate inquiry does not infringe on the separation of church and state because Grassley's questions have nothing to do with church doctrine.

Mr. BEHR: It has to do with tax issues. Were perks actually taxable benefits? Were gifts that were given to the ministry actually what's called a pass-through transaction, where the individual gives directly to the - to another individual rather than using the church in-between? The compensation that was derived for these individuals, these pastors or ministers - was there some oversight?

LOHR: While the majority of churches have responded to Senator Grassley, it's unclear how many will answer his questions.

Joyce Meyer Ministries has posted financial reports on its Web site. In a news release, Meyer says even though she's not required by law to answer Grassley's questions, she'll do so by Thursday's deadline.

Regarding the $23,000 commode, the statement calls it, quote, "a tall, elegant chest of drawers," and says it's one of more than five dozen pieces of furniture that the ministry paid $261,000 for back in 2001 to furnish its headquarters.

Grassley says he wants to make sure that billions of dollars in donations are being used properly and not for personal gain.

Sen. GRASSLEY: My business is the enforcement of the tax laws and the integrity of the tax code and making sure that trustees of charitable giving are true trustees.

LOHR: If the churches fail to respond this week, they could face further scrutiny from the IRS and congressional hearings.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

MONTAGNE: You can read the letter Senator Grassley sent to the megachurches, including questions about their possibly extravagant spending at npr.org.

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