The Rules Don’t Apply to Me

Last month, Senator Chuck Grassley asked six notorious preachers of the prosperity gospel to account for some highly questionable expenditures, in light of their ministries’ non-profit status. So far, it seems that only one of the six, Joyce Meyer, has complied. Three others – Benny Hinn, Paula White, and Kenneth Copeland – have yet to respond. Now the remaining two, Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long, have announced that they will not cooperate.

The letter from Dollar’s attorney expresses concern about giving documents to the government, explaining such action could trample on the constitutional rights of people to practice religious beliefs without government interference.

…It went on to say, “… we believe that the religious doctrine and practices of a church should not be held out for the world to evaluate as a result of responding to Congressional inquiries.”

…A written response from Long’s attorney says Grassley’s request… “clearly disregards the privacy protections of the Church under law and appears to cross the line of Constitutional guarantees for churches.”

Although the answer to this should already be obvious, notwithstanding these ministries’ furious attempts to fog the issue, I’ll say it again: in the United States, tax exemption is not a right, it is a privilege. The government grants this privilege to certain groups in exchange for them meeting a particular set of rules. To ensure that these rules are being complied with and that this privilege is not being abused, the government has every right to demand high standards of accountability and transparency from those who receive it. The First Amendment protects freedom of conscience and belief, but it does not grant blanket exemptions from generally applicable laws to any group that declares itself religious. It also does not grant any group the right to operate in secrecy, free of scrutiny or accountability.

If these wealthy prosperity preachers continue to defy the Senate, I hope the government seeks all legal means of redress, including subpoenas and IRS investigations. So far, these individuals have acted very much as if they had something to hide, and were seeking to shield their questionable conduct from scrutiny by pulling a cloak of god-belief over it. It should be little surprise that corruption always flourishes best in the dark.

In this, Dollar and Long are just the latest in a long line of pious scoundrels who act as if their faith grants them a special exception from the rules everyone else must follow. The first and foremost recent example is, of course, Kent Hovind – the young-earth creationist, Christian theme-park owner, and tax protestor who claimed that he had no obligation to pay income tax because all his belongings were the property of God. Needless to say, the government was not impressed by this argument. After years of stalling and legal buffoonery, Hovind was finally convicted of multiple counts of tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in federal prison.

This same principle has also reared its head in my home state of New York, where the legislature is debating a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act“. This law would exempt believers from following laws that burden their religious exercises unless the state could meet the high standard of showing that the law advances a “compelling” state interest and is the least restrictive means possible of doing so. Governor Eliot Spitzer has supported this bill, while Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has introducted a slightly better version that would not permit religious exceptions to laws preventing discrimination or ensuring access to health care.

Nevertheless, this bill in general is a terrible idea. (The Institute for Humanist Studies gives a rundown.) There are already sufficient protections for free exercise; what we do not need is a law that gives special rights to the religious. And why should only religious belief get special exceptions? What if an atheist’s freedom is burdened by some law? Why don’t nonbelievers also get a special license to opt out of following laws that place a burden on them?

In seeking to bend over backwards to accommodate religious voters, politicians have gone too far. The religious should not enjoy any privileges not available to anyone else; they must be required to comply with the same laws as all the rest of us. It’s to be hoped that the growing “new atheism” movement, by challenging the false claim that theistic beliefs deserve any unusual respect as compared to other kinds of beliefs, will strip away the pretense that these beliefs give their holders special rights.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Very good post. I applaud Joyce Meyer for cooperating with the investigators. As for the rest, I will, with great difficulty, resist the temptation to jump to the conclusion that these people are all guilty as sin. Their “Good Book,” King James Version no less, says: Abstain from all appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22, if you really want to know). In other words, don’t just avoid being or doing evil, stay away from anything that could people could erroneously perceive to be evil. Interesting thing though, a few recent translations of that verse back away from that high standard and just say stuff along the lines of “avoid all (actual) evil.” Wander over to Bible Gateway if you want to check it out.

  • john

    hmm…
    i wonder if anything will actually happen because of this. its no wonder that prosperity preachers are running rampant because of an unwilling government to clamp down on this kind of BS without being hit with some kind of discriminatory suit of some kind. this kind of crap makes me sick. so many hungry mouths to feed and all of the money that the so called ‘religious’ pour into these things, the less and less mouths are fed.
    i think the government should clamp down on all religious foundations and church’s, and whatnot, and make them pay for their illicit gains like everyone else.

  • velkyn

    well, well. The religious “wrong” doesn’t think that government should have anything to do with religion when it is *their* religion. But when they want to force others to their religion, they are all for the government to be their tool to force it on others. What total hypocrites.

    I do think that they have something to hide and are indeed guilty of something.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Hear, hear.

    I mean, if you follow these people’s logic, every one of us could avoid paying taxes by starting churches. We could all declare ourselves Ministers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by his noodly appendage!), invite our friends over every Sunday to watch pirate movies, and call it worship. And we could declare that all our income — even our income as nurses and copywriters and systems analysts and whatnot — counts as church income… because that’s what our religion preaches. (Even if that’s not what FSMism preaches. We’ll form yet another FSM schism that supports our scam — er, faith.)

    Please.

    My fear is that the government won’t go after these people too aggressively, for fear that they’ll look anti-religion. Thus creating a situation in which religious fraud, while technically illegal, is de facto tolerated.

    I actually have some pretty serious issues with the whole tax-exempt status of religious organizations anyway. Can anyone explain why that’s not a government establishment of religion?

  • velkyn

    I think it’s probably because any religion can get that status. So, it’s not the establishment of a “particular” religion. However, I’m tired of paying money so theists can have free services for themselves and their buildings. I think that would have a better chance of being a true challenge. I, not the government, am supporting religions that I don’t believe in.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I already emailed this article to Ebon, but I thought other members might want to read it.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20071210/od_nm/evolution_lawsuit_dc

    A Christian biologist is suing the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, claiming he was fired for refusing to accept evolution, lawyers involved in the case said on Friday.

    Nathaniel Abraham, an Indian national who describes himself as a “Bible-believing Christian,” said in the suit filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Boston that he was fired in 2004 because he would not accept evolution as scientific fact.

    The latest U.S. academic spat over science and religion was first reported in The Boston Globe newspaper on Friday. Gibbs Law Firm in Florida, which is representing Abraham, said he was seeking $500,000 in compensation.

    The zebrafish specialist said his civil rights were violated when he was dismissed shortly after telling his superior he did not accept evolution because he believed the Bible presented a true account of human creation.

    Creationists such as Abraham believe God made the world in six days, as the Bible’s Book of Genesis says.

    Woods Hole, a federally funded nonprofit research center on Cape Cod, said in a statement it firmly believed its actions and those of its employees in the case were “entirely lawful” and that it does not discriminate.

    Abraham, who was dismissed eight months after he was hired, said he was willing to do research using evolutionary concepts but that he had been required to accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as scientific fact or lose his job.

    The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination dismissed the case this year, saying Abraham’s request not to work on evolutionary aspects of research would be difficult for Woods Hole because its work is based on evolutionary theories.

    Abraham said this condition was never spelled out in the advertisement for the job and that his dismissal led to severe economic losses, an injured reputation, emotional pain and suffering and mental anguish.

    The case underscores tension between scientists, who see creationist views as anti-science, and evangelical Christians who argue that protections of religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution extend to scientific settings.

    Abraham, 35, is now a biology professor at Liberty University, a Baptist school in Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Christian pastor and televangelist.

    It’s the “protection of religion” part that seems to confuse people like this. Where does it say that one of our government’s jobs is protect religion? The government does not (or rather should not) offer “protection” of religious beliefs; it shouldn’t offer anything outside of not making laws regarding it’s establishment. The government isn’t seeking to undermine these people’s religions in the case of the televangists, they’re looking into how they spend the money they take in.

  • OMGF

    My fear is that the government won’t go after these people too aggressively, for fear that they’ll look anti-religion. Thus creating a situation in which religious fraud, while technically illegal, is de facto tolerated.

    Being not too long removed from a Congress that unanimously sang “god Bless America” to protest taking “Under god” out of the pledge of allegiance, your fear seems like a pretty safe bet.

  • Eric

    Mrnaglfar,

    I saw that article as well, and had a couple thoughts. First, as a biologist and after accepting the job VOLUNTARILY, isn’t accepting evolution as fact PART OF THE JOB REQUIREMENTS? If so, then how is this a violation of his civil rights.

    It would be the equivalent of a mathematician deciding to not accept Pi because of religious beliefs. Or a banker who does not accept 100-50=50. These are all part of the job require,emts. It is frightening because with this idiot “biologist” he is trying to conviniently decide what is fact and what is not, not based on observable empirical evidence, but on a fable-based hunch.

    And people wonder why American kids are sucking hind teat in math and science.

  • Eric

    Oh yes, Mrnaglfar, what is the origin of your nickname. It looks Icelandic, does it have some meaning? I only ask because I spent some time in Iceland working and enjoying a truely enigmatic and amazing country!

    (sorry Ebon, a tad off topic, but had to inquire!)

  • Mrnaglfar

    Eric,

    My name actually comes from the guy who ran my local cd shop. I was order a cd by a band, Naglfar, that day, and he just started calling me MrNaglfar. I thought it had a nice ring so I kept it.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Oh, and one more thing:

    Creflo Dollar?

    Really?

    That is so Damon Runyon-esque, it’s almost unbelievable. If I were writing a fiction story about a fraudulent evangelical minister and named him Creflo Dollar in the first draft, I’d change the name for being heavy-handed and ridiculously implausible.

  • James Bradbury

    re: Creflo Dollar.

    Yeah, it’s even better than Oral Roberts! Are there any others? Randy Rogers perhaps?
    (As an aside, in British slang, Randy means “horny”… hehe – sorry).

  • lpetrich

    Greta Christina, the Universal Life Church has been running that sort of scam for at least a few decades now. Members become religious leaders in it, and their property thus becomes religious property and thereby exempt from taxes, or so they hope — there’s been a lot of litigation about that.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “My fear is that the government won’t go after these people too aggressively, for fear that they’ll look anti-religion. Thus creating a situation in which religious fraud, while technically illegal, is de facto tolerated.” — Greta Christina

    Your fear will almost certainly come to pass, nor can we rely on a (religiously)biased media, which is why it is so very important for us rationalists to bring this to the attention of our believing friends. While most if not all of them will not change one shred of their belief, this knowledge will surely act upon the whole rotten structure, in the same manner that waves eventually make sand out of stone. At least, this must be our hope.

    And Greta, regarding Mr. Dollar’s incredibly apt name: I only wish his mother had named him “Freeflow” instead. It would have topped the whole stinking split with one hell of a cherry.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    The solution to the intransigent preachers, who categorically state that they will not cooperate, is obvious. Simply yank their tax exempt status as soon as you receive the letter from the lawyer. Give it back when they cooperate, if their cooperation does not turn up any irregularities.

    Guaranteed, they will cooperate. Congress may need to pass an amendment to the Tax code, but that should be fairly simple, if they have a mind to do so.

    Wait, Congress? A mind? What was I thinking?

  • KShep

    re: Creflo Dollar.

    Yeah, it’s even better than Oral Roberts! Are there any others? Randy Rogers perhaps?

    I remember a movie back in the 80′s where Andy Kaufman played a TV preacher with the most atomic pompadour you’ve ever seen—twice the size of Jack Van Impe’s. He convinced his followers to send all their worldly possessions to him because god was sick and dying and promised a ticket to heaven for those who gave everything etc. etc.

    The preacher’s name? Armageddon Thunderbird. Funniest name I’ve ever heard.

    (Announcer: “Send all your worldly possessions to GOD; care of Armageddon Thunderbird…….”)

    Wish I could remember the name of that movie.

  • http://corsair.blogspot.com corsair the rational pirate
  • James Bradbury

    Obligatory George Carlin quote:
    Religion convinced the world that there’s an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there’s 10 things he doesn’t want you to do or else you’ll go to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! …And he needs money! He’s all powerful, but he can’t handle money!

  • goyo

    I love to watch programs on the religious channels from time to time, just for laughs. This past weekend, I saw a program where one of our fine preachers from Texas was guest preaching on another’s program. He had written a book entitled, “the seven times jesus bled”, or something like that. He had a Jewish Talit, the white garment that Jewish believers wear, and said that this garment would protect the wearer from spirits, principalities, and demons, while praying. He then proceeded to pray over the letters that people had sent in, all the while, the other preacher was begging for people to send in gifts of $700.00, and they would send them a talit also. The funny thing was, the implication is that if you don’t pray with the talit, you’re prayers wouldn’t be as effective. Of course, the $700.00 amount was because of the numbers of times that jesus bled. How revolting!
    He kept repeating anecdotes of how different people had been cured of various diseases, and problems while just touching this garment. Sound familiar?
    What a rip-off. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. These quacks are legion.
    And it’s all tax-exempt.

  • chiron613

    I cannot understand the reasoning behind giving tax exemption to churches. It amounts to my tax dollars subsidizing church-related activities, because I am paying more taxes to cover what these churches aren’t paying.

    I doubt any politician has the guts to tackle this issue, but I believe that whenever there is an income, there should be taxation. If churches (or others) want to reduce their taxes, let them give money to charities and others who need it, which may have been the idea behind the exemption in the first place.

  • goyo

    You’re right, chiron. If there is a profit, it should be taxed. I am a school teacher, and principals and superintendents are fired all the time if the school ends up with money at the end of the fiscal year. Since they are tax-exempt, they have to use (spend) all of the money in their budget. If they end up with extra money, someone is held accountable. It is supposed to be used legitimately.

  • cranker

    Religions talk about how much they give to charity and the poor etc. It is actually our money( our taxes ) that they give and it always comes with a price tag; belief in a magical sky dude of a certain persuasion. Tax the crap out of them starting with the Catholic church. Tax any religiously associated charity or business.

    Can I get an Amen here?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Can I get an Amen here?

    No, you can’t. But I agree most wholeheartedly anyway. :)

  • Ben

    Says James Bradbury: “Yeah, it’s even better than Oral Roberts! Are there any others? Randy Rogers perhaps?
    (As an aside, in British slang, Randy means “horny”… hehe – sorry).”

    And “rogers” means…

    (Look it up)

  • http://Yahoo Mark Twayne

    That is correct about what he said religions corporation plans. The mormon church aka The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints hides their accounts under the name Corporation of The First Presiding Bishopric.

  • Phil E. Drifter

    There is no god. Get over it.