Tax exemption under review

Houston Star-Telegram/August 13, 2005
By Darren Barbee

The tax-exempt status of faith healer Benny Hinn's $6.5 million world headquarters in Grapevine is being examined by the Tarrant Appraisal District after a televangelist watchdog group this week questioned whether the property should be considered a church.

The review of the property at 3400 William D. Tate Ave., triggered by a request of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, is considered somewhat unusual, appraisal district officials said. But any request for a review is investigated as a matter of policy.

The ministry's 58,000-square-foot facility, with 235 employees, passed muster with the district in July 2003, when it was granted a property-tax exemption, according to the ministry and appraisal district documents.

Hinn is known for worldwide crusades in which believers are promised miracle healings. But Trinity contends that the ministry hides its spending from donors and uses donations to provide Hinn with a multimillion-dollar California parsonage and a seven-figure salary.

Ministry spokesman Ronn Torossian said that the Grapevine facility meets all requirements for its tax exemption and that the organization spends all of its money on spreading the gospel and providing for the needy. He lashed out at Trinity President Ole Anthony, calling him and his organization anti-Christian and anti-religious.

"They are on their crusade ... to harm Christianity, to harm religion," Torossian said in a telephone interview from New York. "And we find no credence in anything they say or do."

Anthony said that Trinity, a nonprofit religious organization, brought the matter to the district's attention because he wants to bring "integrity to the body of Christ."

But Anthony also said he opposes ministers "becoming fabulously wealthy on the backs of God's people."

The Grapevine building is used to handle the mail and phone calls of Hinn's ministry, according to Anthony and appraisal district documents. In a Wednesday letter, Anthony asked chief appraiser John Marshall to re-evaluate the gated property, in part because no public worship services are held there and only those with access cards or permission are allowed entry.

"Designating this organization as a church would be tantamount to naming Interstate Batteries, General Motors, the Dallas Cowboys and other for-profit corporations as churches because they hold periodic Bible studies on their premises," Anthony wrote.

Vinita Tribble, the district's support services director, was part of a team that initially examined the property for tax-exempt status.

"What we're doing at this time is re-examining the evidence that we have," Tribble said. She said the district has an obligation to investigate any allegations that an exemption was granted in error.

"It will stay under continual review as the situation develops," she said.

By law, a religious property-tax exemption may be granted if a property is regularly used as a place of worship, she said. That can mean anything from individual meditation to a group ceremony to religious education.

The district approved the ministry's 2003 request for an exemption only after asking for several documents, including the ministry's bylaws and its authorization from the secretary of state to do business in Texas. District officials also asked for a detailed explanation of how the property is used primarily as a place of regular religious worship.

In April 2003, the ministry responded that:

• All employees are Christians and have "some form of organized worship, fellowship, prayer and biblical study at the Grapevine property on almost every business day."

• The property has a sanctuary devoted to religious worship.

• Call-center operators pray with callers and take tithes and offerings.

In addition, Tribble said, the property was granted a certificate of occupancy from Grapevine that described the facility as a church.

"The evidence that I was provided with the application was sufficient ... to bring it within the property-tax exemption statute," she said.

The ministry's attorneys acknowledged to the district that the building does not offer public worship services. And in 2000, a ministry spokesman told the Star-Telegram that the building would be "a traditional corporate office facility. ... There will be no facilities to accommodate the general public."

But not every inch of a property must be devoted to worship to qualify as a church, Torossian said.

"Our underlying religious purpose at our property in Grapevine is that of a church religious organization with religious beliefs and religious services, which are performed," he said.

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