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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sen. Chuck Grassley v. Prosperity Preachers, Part 2

For those following news and analysis surrounding Senator Grassley's investigation, don't miss this post from church-state expert Melissa Rogers. A snippet below:

The government has the right and obligation to ensure that 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, including churches, abide by the restrictions that apply to those organizations by virtue of their interest in qualifying for and maintaining that tax-exempt status. At the same time, the government must ensure that it respects the First Amendment rights of churches in the process.

Viewed from that perspective, Grassley is on target when he says he is launching this investigation because of concerns that these organizations have crossed legal lines that apply to them because of the tax-exempt status that they wish to have and keep. And I'm glad to hear Senator Grassley appreciates the need to avoid government meddling in theological issues and to respect the separation of church and state. With those assurances in mind, I hope Senator Grassley will drop a couple of troubling talking points he has used. In a radio interview (see here ), Grassley refers to the fact that he is a Christian. He says, "[a]s a Christian myself. . . . I think we expect the money to be used for the purpose of the mission . . . . " And the Tampa Tribune reports that Senator Grassley said:

"I think for a person like me, it's this simple," Grassley told News Channel 8 on Tuesday. "Jesus came into the city on a simple donkey. To what extent do you need a Rolls-Royce to expand the ministry of Jesus Christ?"

These talking points are ill-advised because they could be read to suggest that a government leader is using his official powers to target certain churches because he takes issue with their theology. I take a back seat to no one in terms of my criticism of the so-called "prosperity gospel." But I don't want any branch or official of the government to try to evaluate the "prosperity gospel" as a theological matter -- that is not the government's job. The government's job is to make, interpret, and enforce the law, even when it applies to religious organizations, and to do so in ways that respect religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It will be important to watch this investigation as it moves forward to ensure that it adheres to those principles.

Over at Christianity Today, Richard Hammar who is an expert on church law and tax has a helpful piece that offers more details. Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code exempts religious organizations from federal taxation so long as they comply with certain requirements. One requirement is that the organization does not pay unreasonable compensation which is the main focus of Grassley's investigation.

I guess the million dollar question is, under the law, what's REASONABLE? A 23,000 dollar marble commode? Lipo? I suspect a Prosperity Preacher who wears tailor-made Armani suits and drives a Bentley could make an argument that the amount of compensation received is in fact reasonable....

Let's hope Grassley's investigation is guided by respect for the principle of church-state separation and not his own personal motives and/or religious bias against "Electronic Serpents."

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