Pennsylvania Megachurch Pastor, William Curtis, is facing criticism after a picture surfaced of his $230,000 Bentley Bentayga. A picture on Facebook showed the luxury car parked in the pastor’s reserved spot outside of the church. The caption read “If ya pastor driving a Bentley truck…he’s sucking your community dry with hope and tithes.” Apparently, the church is located in a poor community. In fact, the value of the pastor’s vehicle greatly surpasses the average income of the community.
He is more than a pastor though. William Curtis also teaches at the United Theological Seminary. In addition, he is co-owner of a marketing firm called The Church Online. Still, Samuel Cruz, an associate professor of Religion & Society at the Union Theological Seminary, says the income stream doesn’t add up. Cruz stated, “To own a car that expensive you have to be among the top 10 percent of income earners or even higher of these United States of America, and I can’t consider how preaching could lead someone to so much wealth.”
If ya pastor driving a Bentley truck…. he’s sucking ur community dry with hope and tithes 🤦🏾♂️ #babylontricks #jesusroadacamel #pastorBigBs
Here’s the problem with trying to sue a pastor for misappropriating funds
Church administration matters are protected by the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause and courts don’t usually interfere with that. The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens’ right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a “public morals” or a “compelling” governmental interest. For instance, in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court held that a state could force the inoculation of children whose parents would not allow such action for religious reasons. The Court held that the state had an overriding interest in protecting public health and safety.
Because of the First Amendment, pastors can argue that it is unconstitutional for the government to interfere with their practice of religion. Congregation members then can argue that there is a compelling governmental interest to protect citizens from fraud, even if it’s protection from a religious leader.
Unlike other non-profits, a church does not have to file a Form 990 with the IRS. This form discloses salaries of church employees, among other things. In addition to being tax-exempt, it’s not hard to see why fraud is so common in the church.
There are successful cases of church members suing the pastor
In September 2017, a Michigan Circuit Court Judge sentenced retired priest, David Fisher, to 5 years in prison after he embezzled between $50,000 to $100,000 from church members. Fisher must pay $127,000 in restitution as ordered.
A Louisiana judge charged Minister, Joseph Alexander with bank fraud. Alexander wrote church checks to himself, opened a bank account without church permission, and paid personal expenses. He faces a maximum 30 years imprisonment for each of his 16 counts of fraud.
Previously, a Louisiana appeals court held that members of the church must have access to church financial records in accordance with La. R.S. 12:223 corporate record keeping.
In November 2017, church members in Lexington, Kentucky filed suit against the pastor, Cameron McDonald, over his spending. A judge recently dismissed the suit and members now fight to remove the pastor.
Citing the First Amendment, churches hesitate to involve themselves in church matters. In addition, fraud is hard to prove as most churches don’t have accounting procedures in place. Todd Johnson, Director of the Center for The Study of Global Christianity, stated much church fraud goes unreported. He estimates that 95% of fraud within churches go undetected or reported.
Prosecuting religious fraud is rare and hard to prove but it has been done. The hardest part of reporting your pastor may be the backlash from the community. They have a following more loyal than Beyonce’s beehive, I think.