The Prophet of Profit?

Stephen Phillips July/August 1997
Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The pain for Norma Smith of Dallas, Texas, was acute. Her husband was dying of a liver disease, and the doctors weren't able to help. But she found hope in God and in televangelist Robert Tilton, who in solicitation letters promised that if she donated money, he'd personally pray for her husband and that he would recover. Only one problem: Norma Smith kept on receiving solicitation letters from Tilton promising her husband's recovery - after he had died!
She sued, saying that she had been defrauded by the wealthy evangelist.
She wasn't alone. Hundreds of other former followers of the Texas preacher have filed suits against Tilton, claiming that he defrauded them with promises of miracle medical cures and financial prosperity if they sent in prayer requests and - of course - money.
These cases all raise interesting church-state questions. Can a promise of spiritual blessing be grounds for fraud when the blessing never materializes? What if the promise is made by an artful con artist using religion to earn a fast buck? Does the state have a duty to protect unwary believers from religious fraud? Can a minister be sued for misrepresenting God?
All these questions and more were tackled in the numerous legal cases surrounding Texas evangelist Robert Tilton. The only problem: many might not like the answers.

Health and Wealth

Converted in the 1960s, Robert Tilton started his own church in 1976 and first went on television in the mid-1980s. With his first wife, Marte, he built the Word of Faith World Outreach Center, Inc. (in Carrollton, Texas), into a multi-million-dollar operation.1 At one point his church membership numbered around 10,000, his television program appeared on stations around the globe, and USA Today touted Tilton as the fastest-growing force in American TV evangelism.2
Tilton's popularity stemmed from, among other things, his promises of healing and wealth (also known as the "name-it-and-claim-it" gospel) to those who would "seed" their faith by giving liberally to his ministry. Tilton assured adherents that he would personally pray over each request, and - claiming to be a prophet - he could guarantee a positive outcome.3
Tilton's You Shall Eat the Riches of the Gentiles, published in 1990, assured followers that many temporal blessings from God were available to those who met certain requirements, including a "vow of faith" in which the believer promised before the Lord to send Tilton's ministry money, amounts from to ,000. The more you sowed, Tilton promised, the more you would reap. Tilton often told anecdotal stories of individuals who had received the promised blessings. Pat and Jim, for example, said, "Since we made that ,000 vow, God has met our every need." Tilton also assured his followers that their contributions paid the television expenses for ministering to "the hurting multitudes" and to support needy orphanages.4
The methods worked, at least financially. Robert Tilton Ministries' annual income was estimated at more than million, and his salary at least 0,000. Among God's temporal blessings were Tilton's ministry-owned lavish houses and expensive cars. Tilton's board, composed of Robert, his wife, and their secretary, decided where the funds were to go. Though he claimed to live a frugal existence, he actually lived in high style among the charismatic jet set.

Tilton Under Attack

In the early 1990s accusations began to be raised against Tilton - that he was manipulating followers for personal gain, and that he was a con artist who pocketed tax-free contributions rather than using them for the ministries he claimed to support. Following the "fall from grace" of TV evangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, the accusations seemed serious enough to prompt an investigation by ABC news program Prime Time Live. On November 21, 1991, in "Televangelism," ABC leveled devastating charges against three TV evangelists W. V. Grant, Larry Lea, and Robert Tilton. Diane Sawyer hosted the program, alleging that each of the televangelists manipulated followers into giving millions every year and used those funds in ways other than that promised to contributors.5
Much of ABC's research was derived from Ole Anthony, who heads up the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, Inc., a self-described watchdog of "the business of evangelism." With Anthony's assistance, ABC showed that Tilton's ministry focused around a slick marketing and direct-mail company that handled Tilton's mail. The key to success, company representatives said, was continually getting new names to keep soliciting funds and never saying exactly to which ministry a contribution would go, all to avoid IRS scrutiny.6
Furthermore, ABC alleged that Tilton and some of his college buddies, prior to his "conversion," had planned "running preacher scams to get rich." ABC also implied that Tilton had received money to start his ministry from Herman Beebe, who had alleged ties to organized crime. ABC interviewed several individuals involved with Tilton's ministry, all of whom stated that they were instructed to get money from callers. ABC also maintained that the needy orphanages were nonexistent. And ABC claimed Tilton never saw most of the prayer requests: "The money probably made it to Tilton; the prayers went in the trash." This publicity spawned a long series of legal problems for the evangelist.7
Tilton responded to Prime Time Live's allegations by inviting government agencies to review his records. Several federal agencies took up his offer, but failed to find evidence of criminal activity.

The Heavy Hand of Dan Morales

But Tilton's legal problems were just beginning. Texas attorney general Dan Morales, rather than accept Tilton's invitation to review church records, requested a broad range of documents in pursuit of an investigation under the Texas Consumer Protection and Deceptive Trade Practices Acts. To complicate matters, Morales released the list of documents he required to the press, which made hay over another supposedly corrupt TV evangelist. The church refused to surrender the documents Morales demanded, though it would make records available on a discretionary basis.8
When the church threatened to file for an injunction in federal court to stall Morales's actions, Morales filed a petition in quo warranto in the probate court of Travis County, Texas, intended to force Tilton to show why his Word of Faith World Outreach Center deserved nonprofit status. Among other things, Morales asked for "a permanent injunction ordering defendant to produce records as requested by the attorney general, for forfeiture of defendant's charter and dissolution of the corporation, and for appointment of a receiver to take possession of the affairs of the defendant, to rehabilitate, to reorganize, conserve, or liquidate the affairs of the corporation, as the case may be." If successful, this move would have placed control of a church in the hands of the state of Texas. Word of Faith, in response, filed suit in federal court for an injunction against Morales and what he was trying to get a state court to do to the ministry.9
In Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, Inc., v. Morales, the church argued that the First Amendment shielded it from the Texas attorney general's scrutiny. The federal court agreed, and immediately issued a temporary restraining order on state court proceedings. It also, in March 1992, issued an order that stopped the attorney general from obtaining court records or prosecuting quo warranto proceedings. The federal court also rejected Morales's claim that it should abstain from considering the case until proceedings had been exhausted in state court.10
In its ruling the federal court determined that the material in demand was protected by the First Amendment, that the quo warranto proceedings were intended to prevent the church from exercising its constitutional rights, and that Morales acted in bad faith (shown by his antics with the press) - all of which produced the exceptional circumstances that justified federal intervention. The court also determined that Tilton's church was not engaged in commercial trade and therefore not subject to the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. It also ruled that Morales's requests for many documents - such as a list of all contributors and solicitation policies - were "clearly unconstitutional." In an unambiguous pronouncement of the limits of government jurisdiction over religion, the court stated that the state had no constitutional authority to know a person's membership in or support of any church; no constitutional authority to know what a person believes, how he or she practices religion, or how he or she supports religious activities; nor to probe into the internal operations of a church without limitation or compelling purpose.11
The court also objected to attempts under the Texas Miscellaneous Corporation Laws Act to close down Word of Faith: "It is absurd for the attorney general to think that it can deprive the plaintiffs of their rights to freely worship as a group altogether as punishment for the plaintiffs' initial assertion of their First Amendment rights to not produce constitutionally protected documents."
Yet all didn't go in Tilton's favor. The court did find that the attorney general had - under the Texas Non-Profit Corporation Act - limited authority over incorporated churches, which meant that he might investigate under a "properly narrowed summons" to determine "if the church is operating within the limited purposes for which it was incorporated and if it may retain its nonprofit status." 12
Morales appealed, arguing that the federal district court abused its discretion by hearing the case before matters of state law had been settled at the state court level. The U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, in March 29, 1993, agreed with Morales, holding that, because of the attorney general's modified investigatory demands, there were no exceptional circumstances that justified federal court intervention at this stage. The church's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, intended to override the ruling of the appeals court, was denied.13
In response, Tilton's church unilaterally revoked its nonprofit charter, theoretically removing it from state scrutiny and out of the clutches of Dan Morales.

The Court Battles Continue

Tilton, meanwhile, sued ABC and Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, for libel; additionally, he sued ABC, Ole Anthony, the Dallas Morning News, and WFAA-TV (Dallas), alleging they had conspired to damage the church's reputation and diminish contributions.
The conspiracy suit, Tilton v. Richardson, was reviewed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where Tilton - arguing under 42 U.S.C.A. Section 1985(3), often used to recover civil rights damages - claimed that the private actors named in his suit, such as ABC news and WFAA-TV, had conspired to destroy his ministry. He argued, too, that they had violated his civil rights because their actions were not merely private, but that they also sought to influence state action.
The appeals court disagreed, saying that the defendants' actions were private (there were no government officials involved) and therefore not encompassed within the statute.14 Tilton appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which on February 18, 1997, refused to hear it, leaving the lower court ruling in place.
Meanwhile, several contributors sued to recover damages from Tilton, including Norma Smith, who claimed that he had not fulfilled the promises for which they had donated considerable sums to his ministry.15
In Tilton v. Smith the district court rejected all of Norma Smith's claims except for the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The judge did, however, rule in favor of Smith's request for discovery of Tilton's records, despite Tilton's claim that this would violate his freedom of association under the First Amendment. Tilton sought to block this on appeal.
The Texas Supreme Court granted Tilton's request on a conditional basis.16 Justice Rose Spector, writing for the Texas Supreme Court, explained that the First Amendment required a "compelling state interest to be shown before a court may order disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs," citing NAACP v. Alabama (1958). The court ruled that Smith's request was too broad. Rather than asking for a list of all members, Smith should have requested a list of individuals with similar complaints. The ruling resulted in only a partial victory for Tilton, as it did not block a narrowly tailored discovery involving Tilton's records.17
In another suit three parties alleged that Tilton committed fraud, conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Curtis and Patsy High had contributed more than ,000 to Tilton in the hope of recovering custody of her children. Andrea Johnson, a physically disabled welfare recipient, had contributed welfare income to Tilton. Mary Elizabeth Turk, since deceased, had begun contributing to Tilton while caring for her ailing husband. She continued contributions, totaling ,500, when she began herself suffering considerable pain, trusting in Tilton's promises of physical restoration. She later discovered that she was terminally ill with rectal cancer. The plaintiffs alleged that Tilton had not fulfilled his promises to pray over each request personally; further, they alleged that his promises were insincere and that he did not follow his own counsel on tithing. They claimed he had committed fraud, inflicted intentional emotional distress, and conspired to do both. Among other things, the plaintiffs sought discovery of seven years of Tilton's personal tithing record.18Despite Tilton's attempt to quash the deposition, the district court issued an order for the requested records. Tilton " filed an emergency motion for leave to file petition for writ of prohibition or writ of mandamus" with the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in failing to dismiss the suit as well as ordering production of his tithing records.19

The Texas Supreme Court Straddles the Fence

In a lengthy and complex decision, the Texas Supreme Court in Tilton v. Marshall detailed the state's responsibility to protect free exercise of religion, while at the same time guard its citizens against injury. According to Chief Justice Tom Phillips, "the Free Exercise Clause never had immunized clergy or churches from all causes of action alleging tortuous conduct."
What the court had to determine (among other things) was whether these suits against Tilton were violative of his free exercise rights. The court explained the process that must be followed to determine whether an individual could be civilly liable, as in these suits, for religious statements or actions: If a "statute, regulation, or common-law principle" is " facially neutral," a defendant seeking an exemption from the rule (in this case a civil suit) must "demonstrate to the court that the application thereof would burden his or her free exercise of religion." 20 The court's language, in which the onus is on the defendant to prove the burden a supposedly neutral law (or civil suit under the law) places on the free exercise of religion, is reminiscent of Oregon v. Smith (1990), which is why Tilton's lawyers cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in opposition to the plaintiffs' arguments (RFRA requires the state to show a compelling interest before it violates religious freedoms).
Chief Justice Phillips also noted that merely claiming religious belief was not a sufficient bar to civil suit; the individual must also show that his beliefs are sincerely held. If the defendant could show this, the plaintiff then had to "show to the court that granting the exemption [from civil suit] would significantly hinder a state compelling interest." The court determined that suits for fraud in which religious beliefs were involved presented a greater likelihood of entanglement between religion and the state, noting that the state could not determine the "truth or falsity of a religious representation." 21
Because none of these issues had been dealt with in the lawsuits, the Supreme Court said it could not rule on whether Tilton's free exercise claims would be infringed if the cases were continued, a victory for the plaintiffs. The federal bench did warn, however, that the district court could not consider a claim based on unanswered prayers. As for any fraud, the court said damages would be limited to recovery of donations. Exemplary damages could be merited only if plaintiffs could show intentional harm or conscious indifference resulting in harm. But Phillips cautioned that since the threshold of proof for intentional emotional distress was high, plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on that claim. If Tilton's actions were shown to be a sincere exercise of his religious beliefs, the court acknowledged that imposing tort liability on them would place a "direct and substantial burden" on Tilton's religious rights. At the time, the court said, legal action might still be justified if the conduct at question posed some "substantial threat to public safety, peace, or order." 22 On the question of Tilton's tithe, the court ruled that his personal tithing records were relevant in determining the sincerity of his beliefs, and thus the trial court had not abused its discretion in ordering their production.23
Justice Rail Gonzalez, in dissent, argued that the intensely religious nature of plaintiffs' claims, all dealing ultimately with unanswered prayers, precluded court consideration. The state's concern for protecting the free exercise of religion, he argued, far outweighed concerns of the plaintiffs. "Moreover," he wrote, "trying this case is the first step down a slippery slope that ends with heresy trials in this state's courts" (italics supplied).
Gonzalez noted that had plaintiffs received the answers that they sought to their prayers, they would not have sued: "The plaintiffs have alleged that Tilton's statements about what he and God would do caused them severe emotional distress when the promised events - the fulfillment of their prayers - failed to materialize." To reach the threshold for infliction of emotional distress, requiring proof that Tilton's representations were outrageous, would inevitably involve the court's consideration of "the truth or falsity of religious convictions and the power of prayer," matters obviously beyond the cognizance of the state.24
Justice Nathan Hecht, also in dissent, concluded that the conduct in question was clearly beyond the legitimate concerns of the state: " In this country religion and its adherents cannot be held to all their promises in a court of law. Statements of belief, or hope, or even promise, of an essentially religious character, as distinguished from purely secular statements, are protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. If, as I think, the essential element all plaintiffs' claims share is that Tilton misrepresented what God would do, then those claims are barred, and the district court should be directed to dismiss them" (italics supplied).
Hecht argued that allowing lower court consideration of this case would create a chilling effect on religious exercise. Hecht noted, too, the impracticality of the case: "Compensatory damages cannot be recovered because there is no way to determine the value of what plaintiffs received." Hecht reprimanded the majority for ignoring the provisions of the Texas Constitution, which clearly prohibited state consideration of matters of religion.25

The Battle Continues

Though this ruling of the Texas high court allowed several suits against Tilton to proceed, Tilton's lawyers filed a motion for rehearing, seeking to block the suits. J. C. Joyce, counsel for Tilton, is confident Tilton will prevail. Joyce views Tilton's case as the "most significant religious freedom case to come before the courts in many years." 26
A diverse group of Texas churches evidently agrees. Shelby Sharpe, who won a major class action suit against the state of Texas in behalf of home schoolers (Leeper v. Arlington), filed an amicus curiae brief with the Texas Supreme Court in Tilton's favor. Sharpe argued that the Texas Supreme Court should order the trial court to dismiss the suit against Tilton, "because every alleged cause of action is directed at religious beliefs and practices protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States as read into the Fourteenth Amendment and by Article 1, Section 6, of the Constitution of the State of Texas."27
In the meantime, Tilton's legal battles have taken a severe toll. Besides losing his television audience and most of the members of his Carrollton church, Tilton's 25-year marriage broke up. Tilton has remarried evangelist Leigh Valentine, but the marriage has been difficult, and appears to be headed for divorce. He has sold off most of the properties formerly owned by his ministry, probably in part to pay his substantial legal fees.28
Is Tilton simply a misunderstood evangelist who's the victim of government coercion? Or is he a con artist, a "prophet of profit," using religion to defraud the public? Or, from a legal standpoint, does it really matter?
However important those questions, the bigger one remains: At what point should the government intervene in a religious operation? Suppose Norma Smith's husband had decided to forego medical treatment, believing Tilton's promises that because they sent in their "vow of faith," he would be healed? Should the government have stepped in then? But if it did, what would stop it from going even further in other situations?
These are crucial issues, and whatever the Texas courts decide will have repercussions that go far beyond either Robert Tilton or Norma Smith.

Stephen Phillips is a Ph.D. student at the J.M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.




for The Prophet of Profit?


1Statistics on Tilton's ministry were aired on ABC'sPrimeTime Live, Nov. 21, 1991. Also, see Mark Wrolstad, "Trying Times," Dallas Morning News, Dec. 3, 1995, pp. J-1, J-10
2 Jack Kelley, "TV Minister's Star on the Rise," USA Today, Oct. 19, 1990, p. A6.
4Robert Tilton, You Shall Eat the Riches of the Gentiles (Dallas: Robert Tilton Ministries, 1990), pp. 8, 59-66, 72.
5Prime Time Live, Nov. 21, 1991.
6Ole Anthony, "Praying and Preying," Dallas Morning News, March 1, 1992. In a phone conversation with the author on April 9, 1996, Ole Anthony claimed to have on file hundreds of complaints against Tilton's ministries.
7Some of ABC's allegations must be questioned, as the information was derived from anonymous sources.
8Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, Inc., v. Dan Morales, 787 F.Supp. 689 (W.D. Tex. 1992). The probate court issued a show cause order and set a hearing for March 9, 1992.
9787 F.Supp. 689, 692. Quo warranto proceedings are a device used to force an individual to show his or
her right to exercise a legal authority or privilege.
10787 F.Supp. 689, 694, and Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, Inc., v. Dan Morales, 986 F.2d 962, 964 (5th Cir. 1993). The major question was the relevance of the precedents of Younger and Pullman.
11787 F.Supp. 689, 693-695, 697, 694.
12787 F.Supp. 689, 704.
13Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, Inc., v. Dan Morales, 986 F.2d 962, 968, 969 (5th Cir. 1993); certiorari denied, 114 S.Ct. 82.
146 F.3d 683 (10th Cir. 1993); request for certiorari denied, 114 S.Ct. 925. A subsequent suit was also thrown out of court in February 1995 (Wrolstad, J-10).
15Bill Lodge, "Tilton Told to Pay Pair for Fraud," Dallas Morning News, April 22, 1994, pp. A1, A22. Tilton's request for an injunction to block rebroadcast of ABC's allegedly defamatory broadcast was rejected in Tilton v. Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. This case also includes a review of Tilton's refutation of allegations aired on Prime Time Live, 827 F.Supp 672 and 827 F.Supp 674 (N.D. Okla. 1993).
16Tilton v. Moyé 869 S.W.2d 955 (Tex. 1994).
17869 S.W. 2d 955, 956, 957; new request for restraining order denied in Tilton v. Smith, 827 F.Supp. 404 (N.D. Tex. 1993).
18Tilton v. Marshall, 38 Tex. Sup. Ct. J. 1140; 1995 WL 453268 (Tex., 1995), 1, 2; the decision was handed down August 1, 1995; petition for rehearing filed August 21, 1995.
191995 WL 453268, 1, 2. Mandamus is a device intended to force a legal official to take a certain action.
20Ibid., 2-4.
22Ibid., 5-8.
23Ibid., 9-10.
24Ibid., 14-18.
25 Ibid., 19, 25, 27-28, 30.
26Tilton v. Marshall, Motion for Rehearing, No. 94-1233. As of July 1996 the Texas Supreme Court granted a writ of mandamus requiring dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and barring required production of Tilton's tithing records. It allowed fraud claims to proceed, cautioning, however, that the court could not consider claims based on religious doctrines. Joyce's remarks from author's conversation with J. C. Joyce, April 9, 1996.
27J. Shelby Sharpe, brief of amici curiae in support of motion for rehearing, Tilton v. Marshall, No. 94-1233, 2. A successful suit against Tilton in Florida, Elliott v. Tilton was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on a technicality. The jury had awarded .5 million to Elliott for damages related to fraud, breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy, Elliott v. Tilton, 62 F.3d 725, 727-29 (5th Cir. 1995). According to the appeals court, Elliott failed to show that members of Tilton's church resided in Florida or other states besides Texas, to prove the complete diversity on which they based their claim to federal jurisdiction. The claim arose from Mrs. Elliott's reliance on Tilton's ministry during a period of emotional depression when she had contemplated suicide. The Elliotts had appeared on a testimonial tape following an alleged promise by a Word of Faith employee that money generated from the tape would be used to build a national crisis center to help individuals suffering from depression. Additionally, the Elliotts had been promised that they would be allowed to approve the testimonial after editing before the tape's airing. Neither of the alleged promises were fulfilled. Paul Pettite, a former Word of Faith film producer, testified at the trial that he had forged the Elliotts' signatures on release forms. Both Tilton and his former wife denied knowledge of any promise to build a crisis center. Since the Elliotts' claims were not directly associated with religious beliefs or conduct, they do not present the same difficulties for free exercise. See discussion in "Lodge," Dallas Morning News, pp. A1, A16.
28Wrolstad, J-10. A church spokesman, in a conversation with the author on March 9, 1996, reported that the church was doing well, with an attendance of 1,000. Other reports, however, show attendance at 300 and dwindling.

Article Author: Stephen Phillips