John Oliver's recent episode of Last Week Tonight called attention to the lax rules surrounding the registration and taxation of churches in the U.S. To demonstrate just how easy it is to register a church, and thus collect tax-free dues, Oliver registered Our Lady Of Perpetual Exemption. Now, the YouTube video of Oliver's segment has more than 5 million views. Because of Oliver's comments on televangelism, pressure on the IRS is coming from all directions, CBS News reports. Some media are even speculating that the episode could force the IRS to launch a probe into wealthy televangelist organizations.
During the episode, Oliver described the kind of frightening way that televangelists make so much money. They do it through a concept called "seed faith," which is the idea that if you sow a lot of seeds (money) into the ground, then you will reap a great harvest (more money) one day. The idea comes from what's called the prosperity gospel, which says that God intended for Christians to be "healthy and wealthy" if only they will trust him with both of those things, according to CBS News.
Oliver showed that televangelists will stop at nothing to get people to donate money to them: he showed one televangelist asking people to give him the last of their money, even if they intended it to go to their rent, and God will reward them. He showed Gloria Copeland calling for people to turn down the "poison" that is cancer treatment and instead come to her services. He even showed a clip of Creflo Dollar trying to get his followers to donate money so that he could buy a new private jet.
But, even though these people are bringing in millions of dollars every year, they get to keep it all — tax free — because the IRS does not audit churches due to their constitutional right to exercise freedom of religion, according to Newsweek. The IRS suspended church audits completely from 2009 to 2013 and only conducted three from 2013 to 2014, according to CBS.
Since Oliver's episode, an organization called the Trinity Foundation, which probes religious fraud, has received more fuel for its fire. The organization argues that the IRS is contributing to religious fraud and the insane success of televangelism by not auditing churches. Trinity Foundation’s founder, Ole Anthony, said the IRS needs to step in so that the vulnerable people who might donate to televangelists are not continually duped and so that other churches can maintain their integrity, according to CBS News:
A few years ago, the IRS named Scientology a church. Since that happened, anybody can call themselves a church.
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Erik Stanley told CBS News that the few rich televangelists shouldn't be reason enough to infringe on religious freedom by demanding that all churches submit audits:
You are always going to find abuses and excesses in the non-profit community, and even in the church world. ... There is no surer way to destroy that free exercise of religion than to begin to tax it.
Writing for Forbes, Peter J. Reilly said that churches do pay some taxes. For example, a minister's personal use of a church-owned plane would be taxable income. Further, Reilly wrote that "ministers pay self-employment taxes while churches pay FICA taxes on the salaries of their nonclerical employees." He also said that narrowing the definition of churches could rule out some non-Christian or nonconformist churches.
Still, Anthony said that, at the very least, someone needs to call out super-rich televangelists for claiming that follower's donations will bring them even more money or cure their cancer, which is, plainly put, fraud:
My God, they should at least say that fraud is illegal in the name of God.