One of six Christian ministries under investigation by a Senate committee is rebuffing inquiries into its spending, challenging the panel's watchdog role over religious groups, The Associated Press has learned.
A lawyer for preacher Creflo Dollar of World Changers Church International in suburban Atlanta has asked Sen. Charles Grassley to either refer the matter to the IRS or get a subpoena, according to a letter from Dollar's attorney obtained Wednesday by the AP.
Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, sent pointed questionnaires in early November to a half-dozen ministries, asking about salaries, perks, travel and oversight. The Iowa Republican set Thursday as the deadline for a response.
All six organizations preach a form of the "prosperity gospel," the belief that God wants his faithful followers to reap material rewards.
Besides Dollar, several other televangelists have signaled concerns about invasions of privacy and violations of religious freedom. Only Joyce Meyer Ministries of Fenton, Mo., has provided the detailed financial and board oversight information sought by Grassley.
Dollar's refusal could lead to a court fight, giving a judge the authority to decide whether the committee is entitled to all the information it requested.
Grassley emphasized the other five still have time. The senator also reiterated that his probe "has nothing to do with church doctrine" and is strictly concerned with making sure the tax-exempt groups are following the law.
Dollar has been the most vocal in his criticism of the probe. In the Nov. 27 letter obtained by the AP, Dollar attorney Marcus Owens wrote to Grassley and Sen. Max Baucus, the Finance Committee chairman, that the church is willing to comply with a "proper" request for information — but it should be handled by the IRS.
Owens, the former director of the IRS's exempt organizations division, pointed to precedent: In the 1980s, a House subcommittee asked the IRS to review concerns about televangelists.
"A referral would permit Senator Grassley and the Senate Finance Committee to discharge their obligation to oversee federal tax administration without running the risk of government entanglement in the Church's religious beliefs and practices," the letter said.
An IRS review also would ensure privacy, Owens wrote. All IRS reviews are confidential, and Dollar has said he worries that a Senate probe might air sensitive information about salaries, among other things.
Failing a referral to the IRS, Owens requested that the committee seek subpoenas to "provide an appropriate legal context for the review." With a subpoena, the church and its members could gain confidentiality protections.
Joyce Meyer Ministries expressed confidence last week that it would be found in "complete compliance" with financial regulations.
The organization also addressed one of the more salacious details in the letter from Grassley — its reported purchase of a $23,000 "commode with marble top." The ministry said it was not a common toilet but a "a tall elegant chest of drawers," and that the selling agent got the price wrong.
Aside from Dollar and Meyer, the other televangelists have been noncommittal in their public responses. But some have voiced strong objections that echo Dollar's about privacy and religious freedom.
Bishop Eddie Long, who leads a megachurch and ministry in Lithonia, Ga., initially promised to "fully comply" with Grassley's request. But a few days later, Long told his congregation the request was "unjust," "intrusive," and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights."
The others who received letters from Grassley are Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church and Paula White Ministries of Tampa, Fla.; Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church Inc. and Benny Hinn Ministries of Grapevine, Texas; and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries of Newark, Texas.
Owens said in an e-mail to the AP that while each ministry is "separately responding as it sees fit," lawyers for the ministries have been in touch and share common concerns about Grassley's request.
The letter from Dollar's attorney describes the prosperity gospel as a "deeply held religious belief" grounded in Scripture, and that the six churches are part of the "rich tapestry of religion in America" deserving of protection.
Some legal scholars believe the Senate is a proper forum to review religious nonprofit groups' finances — although with caveats.
Congress has a legitimate interest in making sure nonprofit rules are followed because confidentiality rules make it hard to track IRS enforcement, said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, who advises religious groups on church-state issues.
"On the other hand, Congress is a very blunt instrument," he said. "Congressional hearings are hardly models of due process and they can pick on anything they want for any reason they want and that raises real concern. So there's this pull in both directions."