The church of tax evasion

A Senate probe of televangelists looks for tax abuse by the holy.

Life is good for televangelists. For the TV personalities who preach the word of God, sold-out arenas and devoted followers are only part of the benefits. One U.S. Senator believes that some of these iconic clergy are abusing their tax-exempt status to collect mansions and Rolls-Royces.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has launched an investigation targeting six of the highest-profile televangelists in the country. There is reason to be suspicious as some inhabit multi-million dollar palaces and seem to live like kings. One of them installed a tax-exempt toilet to the tune of $23,000. Among them are Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar. All six of the targeted ministries are associated with the “prosperity gospel,” which teaches that God wants you to be rich, but first you have to give large sums of money to the church.

This is far from being a basic tax fraud investigation. The results of this probe could have ramifications for the status of religious institutions. Although Grassley insists he is just trying to enforce the law, many have concerns that this investigation will lead to increased scrutiny of religious groups.

But increased oversight is exactly what we need. These organizations have been given far too much leeway. The separation of church and state, though it has been eroded everywhere else, has firmly protected these religious groups from transparency in their accounting. These multi-million dollar institutions are more like Fortune 500 companies than churches, and they should be held to similar standards.

Grassley is already meeting some resistance from the ministries he is investigating, but it only makes them look guilty. Since these ministries claim they have nothing to hide, they should have quickly coughed up the requested information instead of pretending to be insulted by the probe. If these ministries want to retain their nonprofit status, they should comply and quit acting like their divine work exempts them from following the law.