If you want to start a church, all you need is your own television show. So says the Internal Revenue Service, anyway.
A recent report by National Public Radio (NPR) told the puzzling story of Daystar, a televangelist network based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The network, which is run by Marcus and Joni Lamb, is “dedicated to spreading the Gospel 24 hours a day, seven days a week” to its potential audience of 2 billion worldwide.
Daystar says it is the fastest-growing televangelist organization on the planet, and NPR found that it had assets of $233 million as of June 30, 2011.
Daystar is a lot like Pat Robertson’s or Billy Graham’s operations, with one major difference: unlike those organizations, Daystar is considered a church by the IRS.
Why is that significant? Just like Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Daystar is a tax-exempt ministry with 501(c)(3) status. But unlike CBN, which must file a detailed financial statement annually called Form 990, Daystar is not obligated to disclose anything about its budget. As a result, it’s very difficult to know how much money Daystar brings in or how that money is spent.
NPR noted that Daystar is the biggest religious television network in the United States that is considered a church. How did this happen? It’s all thanks to a highly questionable decision by the IRS.
Under the federal tax code, it’s really easy to start a house of worship. Basically, you can just set up shop and declare yourself a church without much questioning from the IRS. As NPR explained, the IRS has long had a “14-point test” used to determine whether or not an organization is a legitimate church, but it’s rarely used these days for unknown reasons.
“For the most part, a church is a church if they say it’s a church,” Ron Wright, tax assessor-collector in Tarrant County, Texas, where Daystar is located, told NPR. “And if it’s a church, then it’s tax-exempt.”
The 14-point test lists really basic requirements for churches, such as offering regular services, holding religious instruction classes, being led by ordained ministers and having a congregation.
During legal proceedings a few years back, Marcus Lamb said Daystar’s congregation is its television audience. But Marcus Owens, a prominent Washington, D.C., tax attorney who once headed the IRS’ exempt organizations division, said that argument has been rejected by the IRS in at least one previous case.
“That argument did not fly,” he told NPR, “because of the absence of a congregation, a group in the room with the religious leader when the services occurred.”
Daystar has been considered a house of worship from the start, but some of its former employees don’t agree that it really is a church.
“When the lights are on and the cameras are on, we're a ministry,” said Lisa Anderson, a one-time executive assistant to the Lambs. “When those lights are off, cameras are off, it doesn't feel like a ministry. It is a business making money.”
Bill Hornback, Daystar’s former manager of IT, agrees.
“I mean, there’s no Sunday sermon, no Wednesday night meeting,” he said. “It’s all business. It’s not a church. It’s a television broadcasting company, that’s what they are.”
Even a Daystar supporter, a Christian pop singer named Jordan Riley, doesn’t view Daystar as a church.
“Church to me is when I'm gathered with other believers,” Riley said. “I don't consider it an electronic church.”
The IRS should not be spending all its time pouring over records to figure out what is and is not a church. What the IRS should be doing, however, is making sure tax-exempt organizations are not simply raising piles of money and spending it on their own personal interests. And that is where Daystar is raising some red flags.
According to six years of financial records reviewed by NPR, Daystar’s leadership seems to have its hand in the collection plate.
Daystar gave $433,000 to Oral Roberts University, primarily while the Lamb’s three children attended; $53,683 to Lake Country Christian School, which the Lamb children attended; $296,091 to the Lamb’s family church; $32,200 to the Christian marriage counseling organization that the Lambs claim saved their marriage; $24,026 to Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., which Marcus Lamb attended; $21,879 to a nursing home where Marcus’ father lived until his death; $60,000 to Israeli lawyers who helped Daystar get a cable television contract and $572,154 for the sponsorship of Christian NASCAR driver Blake Koch.
Daystar seems to take good care of its friends, too. The group made a $2.3 million loan to Marcus Lamb’s golfing buddy, the Rev. Frank Harber, so that he could start a church. Daystar also spent $97,320 to buy up copies of Joni Lamb's autobiography, Surrender All, NPR said.
As NPR noted correctly, none of this activity is illegal. But the IRS does crack down on any tax-exempt organization that seems to exist mainly (or purely) for the benefit of its bosses. These records show more than enough to raise doubts about how the Lambs spend their church’s money – and who is helped by that spending.
Sadly, Daystar is not the only dubious “church” out there. Liberty Counsel, a Religious Right legal group affiliated with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, bills itself as a “church auxiliary.” It did so in 2006, and hasn’t filed a public disclosure form since. As far as we know, the IRS has never questioned this activity. Yet, we do know that Liberty Counsel is, in its own words, “an international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family….” Does that sound like any church you know about?
There is no fundamental difference between Daystar and a handful of other televangelists, except Daystar is a church and the others are not. The IRS made a mistake letting Daystar be classified as a church, and it needs to take a hard look at Daystar’s operation immediately. It seems unlikely that this ministry could withstand even basic scrutiny because it simply is not a church under the IRS’ own definition.