April 15, 2011

Makeup of Church Investigative Group Questioned

A group that promotes the views of atheists and others who don't believe in organized religion is upset that an evangelical-led commission to investigate church finances and possible new federal regulation of congregations did not include people outside the evangelical world.

The complaint follows an announcement this week that the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has formed a panel to determine whether churches and other religious groups should be held to the same financial standards that are required for other nonprofits.

Specifically, the commission is looking into whether religious groups should be required to file informational tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service. The group will also examine whether federal legislation is needed to clarify rules that allow clergy members to accept donations directly from congregation members.

Dan Busby, the council's president, said he set up the panel at the request of Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who has been investigating the financial practices of mega-churches and televangelists.

Senator Grassley recently wrapped up a three-year investigation into the financial records of six large evangelical Christian ministries after alleging in 2007 that the pastors were regularly misusing donations for their own personal gain.

In January, Senator Grassley announced that the results of his investigation were inconclusive, in part because four of the groups refused to provide financial information.

Though the investigation led to no penalties, Senator Grassley nonetheless raised serious questions about the groups' compensation practices and their use of church property such as church-owned planes, credit cards, and homes.

In the wake of the investigation, Mr. Busby set up the commission of church leaders to determine how churches can better police themselves and whether government needs to step up regulation.

In a March interview, Mr. Busby said he believes some potential church donors are not giving because they don't have enough information about how congregations spend their money.

But critics say the group that Mr. Busby has assembled should have a wider reach.

The Secular Coalition for America complains that all 14 members of Mr. Busby’s group, which is known as the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, are evangelical Christian leaders.

The council had previously said that an advisory panel would include representatives from other faiths. But after this week's announcement of its 14 members, the Secular Coalition says the group's makeup is “inappropriate.”

“It’s bad enough that scores of religious leaders in this country continually abuse our tax codes to line their own pockets,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said in a written release. “Now we’re allowing some of these same people to monopolize the only opportunity given to examine church financials and expose the malfeasance we all know exists. The conflict of interest is obvious."

In response to the complaint, Mr. Busby said in statement that "while ECFA was asked to lead this work, ECFA is certainly not the only organization that will be involved in the process.  There will be many other religious and nonprofit organizations significantly involved.

He said appointments to other advisory committees, including one composed of legal experts, would demonstrate "the breadth of the input" provided to the commission.

What do you think about the committee's makeup and what it should discuss? Share your comments below.