January 06,2011

Grassley Releases Review of Tax Issues Raised by Media-based Ministries

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, today released a staff review of the activities and practices of six media-based ministries and reports concerning other churches and religious organizations referred to the committee. He pursued this review as part of an ongoing effort to strengthen the tax-exempt sector.  The review contains a summary of findings and identifies key issues for discussion by stakeholders. 

“The tax-exempt sector is so big that from time to time, certain practices draw public concern,” Grassley said.  “My goal is to help improve accountability and good governance so tax-exempt groups maintain public confidence in their operations.”

Grassley said tax-exempt policy involving churches and religious organizations is an area Congress hasn’t looked at in decades.  Then-Senator Mark Hatfield’s 1977 request to evangelical groups to be more transparent caused the formation of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).  Joining this organization has become like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for those in the evangelical community. 

According to the ECFA, Hatfield issued his request in response to legislation introduced by Rep. Charlie Wilson that would have required certain disclosures by organizations soliciting funds. Similarly, Grassley expects that the issues raised as part of the staff review will generate discussion about increasing accountability among all types of churches and religious organizations, not just evangelical groups. “The staff review sets the stage for a comprehensive discussion among churches and religious organizations.  I look forward to helping facilitate this dialogue and fostering an environment for self-reform within the community,” Grassley said.

Grassley wrote to six media-based ministries in November 2007, based on requests for review from members of the public who wrote to him because of his previous tax-exempt oversight work.  In addition, these ministries had received media coverage and attention from watchdog groups.  One of the six ministries, Joyce Meyer Ministries, responded fully to Grassley’s inquiry and joined the ECFA in March 2009.  Benny Hinn of World Healing Center Church also provided complete answers to all questions.  Both ministries wrote to Grassley to explain they have undertaken significant internal governance reforms.  “I appreciate these efforts,” Grassley said.  “Self-correction can be more effective than government action.  It’s something that’s worked with other entities I’ve looked at, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution and some top colleges that were amassing large endowments without increasing student aid.”

Four ministries either did not provide any information or provided incomplete information.  Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church, Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church/Eddie L. Long Ministries, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Kenneth Copeland Ministries submitted incomplete responses. Creflo and Taffi Dollar of World Changers Church International/Creflo Dollar Ministries declined to provide any of the requested information. Findings regarding those organizations are summarized in the staff review.

Grassley has formally asked the ECFA to consider the issues raised by staff and spearhead a discussion about how to address those issues. Grassley said the precedent for this review is his work with the Independent Sector, an umbrella organization for tax-exempt groups, which responded to Grassley staff recommendations for charitable reform released in 2004 by convening the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector to vet the proposals and develop others.  Some of the proposals became law.  Others were addressed through increased transparency resulting from the IRS’ revision of the Form 990, which tax-exempt organizations other than places of worship must file.  Yet others were adopted by the nonprofit community as best practices.

“The challenge is to encourage good governance and best practices and so preserve confidence in the tax-exempt sector without imposing regulations that inhibit religious freedom or are functionally ineffective,” Grassley said.  “I look forward to working with the ECFA and other organizations in a productive way.”

Grassley has been chairman or ranking member of the Finance Committee for the past 10 years.  The committee has exclusive Senate jurisdiction over tax policy, including tax-exempt policy.  In his leadership capacity, he has reviewed issues of concern regarding specific organizations such as the Red Cross, the Nature Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution and general areas of the tax-exempt sector, such as tax-exempt hospitals and college endowments.

Grassley’s tenure as ranking member of the Finance Committee is ending because of Republican term limits.  He will remain a senior member of the Finance Committee and will become ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.  He will continue oversight of the tax-exempt sector in these capacities.

The November 2007 press release and letters to the six ministries are available here.