NPR had a two-part story this week on All Things Considered about how churches are basically exempt from not just paying taxes but from any scrutiny by the IRS on how they get their money and what they do with it.
As NPR’s John Burnett reports, no other nonprofits in America – much less corporations – are allowed to generate so much cash with so little accountability.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Because of a quirk in rules by the Internal Revenue Service, the agency has effectively stopped auditing churches for the past five years. Marcus Owens is a private tax attorney in Washington, who used to lead the Exempt Organizations section at the IRS.
MARCUS OWENS: As of now, and in fact since 2009, the IRS has not, to the best of my knowledge, and, in fact, I don’t believe can conduct an audit of a church.
BURNETT: A church is the only type of nonprofit that enjoys special protection from an IRS audit. The Church Audit Procedures Act says a high-ranking Treasury official must sign off if the IRS demands a church’s records. But the IRS has not specified who that official should be. Here’s the catch: Until that happens, there’s no one in the government to authorize a church audit.
BURNETT: Of all nonprofits, churches face the least scrutiny and oversight. They don’t have to pay federal or local taxes. They don’t have to worry about being audited. And they don’t have to report anything to anybody. It’s reasonable to ask, then, what happens with large TV ministries that are classified as churches? They take in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. They’re as rich as large corporations, yet many of them are answerable to no one outside of the organization.
The reason is simple: no one in the government wants to be accused of religious discrimination, especially against the poor persecuted Christians that dominate the House, the Senate, and every legislature in the fifty states, not to mention the millions of people who carry on about a 0.05% increase in their property taxes but would crawl ten miles over broken glass to give their last dollar to Kenneth Copeland.
Speaking of Mr. Copeland, he lives in a palatial estate that looks more like a resort at Disney World than a parsonage, which is how his property is described on the tax-exempt list.
BURNETT: Copeland is a 77-year-old Pentecostal evangelist from West Texas, renowned for his folksy sermons and extensive personal property. We decided to take our own look at his assets.
Last August, I drove to his ministry complex with Pete Evans, who investigates religious groups for the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.
So we’re sitting in an air-conditioned minivan on a Sunday morning in the middle of Kenneth Copeland’s empire here, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth. And surrounding us are all the properties that the local appraisal district has taken off the tax rolls. The church and the ministry building together are valued at about three and a half million dollars. Kenneth Copeland’s airport in front of us here is valued at $8.8 million.
PETE EVANS: The property we’re looking at, the hangar, houses two jets: one Cessna Citation, one of the fastest private jets in the world, currently valued at about $10 million. And then they have another jet worth a couple million stored in that same hangar that we’re looking at.
BURNETT: The most impressive building of all is the $6.3 million residence of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, which is exempt from property taxes because it’s listed as a parsonage.
The bottom line, so to speak, is that if you want to make a huge fortune without any scrutiny from the government, you can either go into the waste disposal business in New Jersey or you can start preaching the gospel and set up an 800 number with a Pay Pal account.
The fastest way to get the IRS and Congress to look into the megachurch business is to have someone open a mega-mosque and start talking about Allah on cable TV. They’d be on that operation faster than a second collection.