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Saturday, August 30, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor defies IRS

The Reverend Mac Hammond
The Rev. Mac Hammond, founder of Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, told his congregation in a letter that an IRS investigation is "politically motivated," and part of "a very clear effort, on a national scale, to discredit, defame and intimidate ministries and preachers of what has been called the 'prosperity gospel.'"

In his first public comments about the IRS inquiry, Hammond, who heads one of the state's larger churches with nearly 10,000 members and reaches a greater audience through Sunday TV broadcasts, said that those "behind these attacks [are] enemies of the gospel."

"They are fearful not only of the moral imperative communicated by these ministries, but the growing wealth and influence of those constituencies," he wrote.

The IRS has filed a petition in U.S. District Court to force the church to answer a demand for detailed financial information. The church declined to comply with an IRS summons in March, arguing that the law states the request must come from a "high-ranking official" of the IRS.

Church leaders are scheduled to appear in court Oct. 2 to argue the case.

An IRS spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on current cases.

Hammond's mention of a national inquiry into churches like Living Word refers to a request by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, for six prosperity ministries to turn over financial records. Although he's not looking into Hammond's church, Grassley wants to see if the other six churches are avoiding taxes. Some have complied, others have refused, including Texas preacher Kenneth Copeland. Hammond sits on Copeland's board, and Copeland's son, John, serves on the board of the LWCC.

Hammond said opponents are trying to deter donors by calling into question "the motivation or integrity of the leadership."

A spokeswoman for Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, said that he is not targeting any particular doctrine; in fact, he had never heard of the prosperity gospel before he began his review of the ministries. Grassley's interest is in tax policy, not doctrine, and he has reviewed several other kinds of tax-exempt groups, she said.

In his letter to congregants, Hammond addressed an issue the IRS is questioning: his airplane. He said the church bought him the plane, which he then leased back to the church, calling it a benefit to the congregation. A nonprofit could not take a tax write-off to offset depreciation if the aircraft is sold, he said. So his ownership will save Living Word money if the plane is sold.

Personal loans to Hammond that were excused by the church were approved by the board and declared as compensation on which tax was paid, he wrote.

In defending his financial gains, Hammond wrote that he "had enough personal resource to do without a salary" for one or two years when he started his church, and that 75 percent of his wealth has come from "investment equities" beginning in the 1990s -- not church salary.

The Hammonds are the church's largest donors, giving more than $2.5 million over six years, he wrote. He is now liquidating "a substantial portion" of his assets to put into the church, if needed, Hammond said.

He also blamed the media for reporting on church issues.

"I rejoice in the certainty that you are moved only by the Word that is preached and not the secular media," he said.