Christian Right leader Jay Sekulow and his family members have benefited handsomely from two nonprofit organizations that he runs – Christian Advocates Servicing Evangelism (CASE) and American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), according to an in-depth story in the Tennessean.
"Since 1998, the two charities (run by Jay Sekulow) have paid out more than $33 million to members of Sekulow's family and businesses they own or co-own," the Tennessean reported. (Photo: Juda Engelmayer)
The Sekulow saga is but the latest example of what happens when faith becomes a lucrative family business – one without financial accountability and one where leaders crave CEO lifestyles.
Like dubious corporations, some untrustworthy Christian organizations operate without the institutional control of an independent board.
When the seal of secrecy about the faith-based family business is broken, goodwill faith leaders are smeared and rightful cynicism of Christianity is bred.
"Since 1998, the two charities have paid out more than $33 million to members of Sekulow's family and businesses they own or co-own, according to the charities' federal tax returns, known as form 990s," reported the Tennessean.
The newspaper disclosed on Sept. 4, "One of the charities is controlled by the Sekulow family – tax documents show that all four of CASE's board members are Sekulows and another is an officer."
The Tennessean reported the following payments made to the Sekulows since 1998:
● "$15.4 million to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, a law firm co-owned by Jay Sekulow. According to the 2009 tax form, he owns 50 percent of CLAG. The firm was known as the Center for Law and Justice when it received some of the payments."
● "$5.7 million to Gary Sekulow, Jay Sekulow's brother. He is paid for two full-time jobs – as CFO of both the American Center for Law and Justice...and Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism...In 2009, his combined compensation topped $600,000."
● $1.6 million was paid to Sekulow's wife.
● $681,991 was paid to Sekulow's two sons.
● "$2.74 million in private jet lease payments to Regency Productions, a company owned by Jay Sekulow, and PFMS, a company owned by his sister-in-law, Kim Sekulow."
The newspaper said that Jay Sekulow has worked without a salary since 2002 – according to ACLJ's tax forms.
However, the Tennessean noted that "ACLJ's 2009 tax form shows it paid $2,382,770 to the law firm 50 percent owned by Sekulow – Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group. The fact that the law firm is half-owned by Sekulow is not found in ACLJ's tax filings."
Conservative Christian leader John Whitehead was critical of Sekulow's business arrangements.
"If you read the New Testament, the founder of Christianity said, 'I have no place to lay my head,'" Whitehead told the Nashville-based newspaper. "I am aghast at modern evangelism and the money."
Whitehead rightfully underscores a disturbing problem within some high-visibility quarters of the evangelical and Pentecostal community. Faith can become a family business like the one detailed in the Tennessean.
High-profile examples exist in which financial gain is spread throughout a faith-based family organization, and family members seek control of the organization from generation to generation.
Some examples illustrate that passing organizational control from the founder to his children is seldom successful:
● Faith-healer Oral Roberts passed his mantle to son Richard Roberts, who was forced to resign as president of Oral Roberts University due to financial improprieties.
● With his wife and children in the faith business, Robert Schuller named son Robert as his successor. When that didn't work out, he gave the mantle to his daughter, Sheila. The Crystal Cathedral is now in bankruptcy.
● Billy Graham passed the leadership mantle to son Franklin, who has squandered the credibility of the Graham name with extremist statements and had extremely generous compensations from two nonprofits.
Other examples of an entrepreneurial evangelical founder passing the mantle of leadership to the next generation include Pat Robertson naming son Gordon the CEO of Christian Broadcasting Network.
Jerry Falwell passed the mantle of church pastor to son Jonathan and Liberty University president to son Jerry.
Don Wildmon named son Tim as head of the American Family Association, which recently sponsored the Gov. Rick Perry prayer rally in Houston.
The Sekulow saga is a reminder that greed may grow scales over the eyes of grace for some lucrative faith-based organizations run by a family. Donors beware.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.