Some ministers being probed for alleged financial misconduct said they will cooperate with a Senate investigation. But they question whether the request for their financial records is overstepping government authority into religion.
Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., and one of the six high-profile ministers being investigated, called Sen. Charles Grassley's request unjust and "an attack on our religious freedom and privacy rights" during the church's service Sunday, according to The Associated Press.
It was Long's first comment beyond the statement he issued saying he would cooperate since Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters to the ministers on Nov. 5 asking for financial statements.
The Rev. Creflo Dollar, who leads World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., already released some information about his and his church's finances. The minister's 30,000-member church took in $69 million in 2006, according to a brief report his church showed The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
"I generally don't make this public," Dollar said, as reported by the local newspaper.
With big perks, such as Rolls-Royces, private jets and multi-million-dollar homes, that seem to come with being a popular preacher on TV, Dollar said he understands the senator's worries as the investigation evaluates whether the ministers are using their nonprofit status to enrich themselves. The six televangelists preach what critics call the prosperity gospel, a highly criticized theology that teaches wealth is a sign of God's blessing.
But Dollar is also concerned that the government may be intruding into religion.
"First of all, it's a miscalculated assumption that those things were purchased with the church's money," Dollar told CNN about his expensive home, private jet and $2.5-million Manhattan apartment. He said his ministry has been an "open book" and complies with the IRS.
Although the church gave Dollar a Rolls-Royce, which is largely used for special occasions, his income is separate from the church's and provided by businesses he owns and from investments and real estate, he told the local newspaper.
"Without a doubt, my life is not average," Dollar said. "But I'd like to say, just because it is excessive doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong."
"The issue is, what route did you use to get that excess?" he noted.
The prosperity preacher argues that "Jesus died for us so we can have a type of life that experiences peace and prosperity," according to CNN.
However, Grassley, a Christian, has a different take.
"Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey," Grassley told The Los Angeles Times. "Do these ministers really need Bentleys and Rolls-Royces to spread the Gospel?"
Nevertheless, the investigation doesn't concern doctrinal issues, Grassley has said.
"I'm just interested in not the personality, not the preaching of these people ... [but] are the laws being followed," he said on CNN.
Religious organizations are generally exempt from federal taxes, but are required to pay taxes if they engage in for-profit businesses.
Kenneth Behr, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), says Grassley is being very careful in his inquiry, not going into doctrinal issues and whether the prosperity churches are doctrinally sound.
Behr, who has dubbed the probe "The Grassley Six," says the government has the right to be able to look into churches and their financial records and that they are all held to the same standard as other nonprofit groups.
None of the ministries under investigation are listed under the ECFA, which is comprised of more than 2,000 evangelical Christian organizations, including such major nonprofits as World Vision.
Other ministries targeted by the Senate investigation are led by Randy and Paula White of Florida, Benny Hinn, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland of Texas, and David and Joyce Meyer of Missouri.
Some argue that the ministers have built media empires, operating their ministries as corporations. Dollar's ministries, for example, include international TV broadcasts, Arrow Records, publishing, home-schooling program, entrepreneurship classes, fitness classes and SAT preparation classes among others. And his next book, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want: The Anatomy of a Successful Life, is due out in January.
"They are taking market principles, setting themselves up as corporations, and yet they don't want to be taxed – they don't want to have accountability," said Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University, according to the LA Times. "They are blurring the line between profit and nonprofit."
Still, Behr doesn't think it's necessary to update current tax laws to require stricter rules and transparency on how donations to churches are spent.
"There are tremendous supporters for religious liberty in churches," he said. "You have to be very careful about the rules you place in particular organizations, especially churches."