South Carolina state officials have rejected a Christian television network's tax-exempt status after discovering it brings in $39 million in profit, a Charlotte news station reports.
The Inspiration Network, a 24-hour-a day network that preaches "prosperity gospel" to more than 54 million U.S. households via cable and satellite, will begin paying nearly $800,000 in property taxes this October.
The ministry promises that if viewers choose to "obey the Holy Spirit," and donate to the network, they'll soon "drive a Mercedes," "be debt free" or even find gold on their land.
Though it seems unbelievable, it's clearly convincing to the many watching. In 2007, the network's revenue was more than $69 million. The ministry's 93-acre headquarters, called City of Light, was paid for with millions of dollars in donations, as well as with a $1.2 million economic development grant from the state of South Carolina for road, water and sewer construction.
David Cerullo, CEO of Inspiration Network, took home more than $1.5 million in 2007, his wife earned $150,000. Their children also appear on the ministry's payroll.
The family owns a home in Charlotte, N.C., valued at more than $1.6 million and another in house in South Carolina worth $3.1 million.
"It appears they've spared no expense with custom woodwork, expansive rock walls, and a boat dock," the report said.
WCNC interviewed a woman who committed to send $58 a month for 12 months to the ministry, hoping that if she "sowed the seed, she'd reap the harvest."
"Nothing he described happened," she said. She went on to say once she and her husband found themselves in even more debt, they asked the ministry to stop taking monthly payments from their bank account, to which the network said no.
Critics, such as Warren Smith of the watchdog group Wall Watchers, call the network "televangelist gunslingers.
"I think there are some donors who are very vulnerable to that message," Smith said. "Especially in tough economic times, you'll find that there are a couple of growth industries. One is the lottery and the other is prosperity preachers."
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has been investigating ministries similar to the Inspiration Network that preach "prosperity gospel," after he heard allegations that ministry leaders, spouses and family members were drawing huge salaries and enjoying lavish lifestyles.
Those allegations seem to have been confirmed, at least in this case. Groups that receive tax exemptions do so because they are giving something back to the community. It's clear that when it comes to the Inspiration Network, the primary recipients are the ministry leaders themselves.
South Carolina has made a smart decision, one that will mostly benefit local public schools, which receive the vast majority of income from property taxes, Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis told WCNC.
Not a bad trade off, to say the least.