`Televangelism' under fire. Court suit seeks to make preachers more accountable for funds raised

A suit filed in United States Fifth District Court here accuses evangelist Oral Roberts of raising $8.7 million through ``fraud and deceptive practice.'' The suit could become a problem for television ministers who rely upon financial support from viewers. Douglas Coggeshall and Russell Richardson, two New Orleans residents, are asking in their suit that the Tulsa-based Roberts and other television evangelists provide full financial disclosures, give proof of all claims to supernatural healing, and refund donations to contributors who want their money back.

``What we're looking for is an across-the-board implementation of strict federal standards to regulate these religious empires of the TV evangelists,'' says Mr. Coggeshall, a former follower of Mr. Roberts's ministry. Both Coggeshall and Mr. Richardson say that their suit is a reaction to the Rev. Mr. Roberts's highly publicized claim that God would ``call him home'' if he did not raise more than $8 million by March 31 for a scholarship fund at Oral Roberts University. The fund was to pay for the education of medical missionaries to the third world, Roberts said.

``No one really knows for sure if he has raised $8 million. No one knows exactly where the money came from, and more important, no one can prove where the money has gone,'' Coggeshall says.

Roberts, who runs a syndicated 30-minute weekly television program carried by 210 stations, has been criticized for presenting emotional and dramatic pleas for funds to keep both his TV show and university operating.

Although contributions to the Roberts ministry reached $55 million last year, that figure is down from a 1980 high of $88 million.

The suit filed in New Orleans, according to some religious programming authorities, is just one more volley in a battle centered upon the regulation and public disclosure of television evangelists and their fund-raising activities.

``On the face of it, this is a unique kind of suit,'' says Jeffrey K. Hadden, a University of Virginia sociology professor. ``My initial hunch, though, is that the American public is about to do the very job that this same suit hopes to accomplish. Everything I've read from the polls suggests that the American public is really fed up.''

Mr. Hadden, author of ``Prime-time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism,'' says the result, in any case, will be fewer contributions to the TV evangelists: ``The religious scandals of the past several weeks have created a sort of moral indignation among television viewers that is unprecedented.''

Besides criticism of the fund-raising technique of Oral Roberts, Hadden was referring to the resignation of the Rev. Jim Bakker from the PTL Ministry in March after disclosure that he had had an extramarital affair seven years earlier. Mr. Bakker and his wife, Tammy, were sometimes called ``the first couple of the electronic church.'' (PTL is an acronym for ``Praise the Lord'' and other, similar phrases.)

Hadden says that, even if such actions as the New Orleans suit are unsuccessful, greater financial accountability may be required from TV evangelists in the future. The only current requirement is for a ministry to file a form with the Internal Revenue Service declaring itself a tax-exempt religious organization for tax purposes.

Although Hadden says he believes the demand for proof of supernatural healing is the weakest part of the suit against Oral Roberts University, he thinks a strong argument can be made for disclosure. That opinion is supported by William A. Neilson, a law professor specializing in nonprofit tax, at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Mr. Neilson says: ``The nonprofit laws under the Internal Revenue Code indicate that there can be no personal enrichment to any individual in the corporate tax structure. I think that sooner or later suits like this will prompt the IRS to address how much individuals like Oral Roberts or Jim Bakker can take out of their organizations.'' Neilson adds that he thinks the legal argument over tax exemption for ministries would grow.

That view is echoed by Arthur Borden, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, based in Oakton, Va.

``Disclosure is becoming more and more important to ministries,'' Mr. Borden says. ``And donors do have a right to know.''

Borden's council, which represents more than 30 Christian organizations with annual incomes of $10 million and above, requires full financial accountability from its member ministries. Roberts's ministry does not belong to Borden's council.

Because of recent news about television evangelism, Borden says, ``problems have been created, and every organization, every church in the country, is going to have people asking such questions as, `Is this the kind of organization I can really trust, or will I just be throwing my money away?'''

Borden adds that such questions will ultimately be good for the television ministries, because they will ``keep them honest.

``The only group that can really make any of the Christian organizations accountable are the donors,'' he says. ``They can vote with their checkbooks.''

The New Orleans suit ``will result in a dropoff of financial support,'' Hadden says. ``And it is unlikely that the Oral Roberts ministry could get by with a funding loss of even something like 10 percent.''

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