Why does the Holy Land Experience keep getting away with pretending to be a church?

By : Michael Wanzie
Comments: 3
Michael Wanzie

Michael Wanzie

It is no secret that about three weeks ago I personally placed the phone call to the Orlando Sentinel informing the publication that Holy Land Experience Theme Park (HLE) had painted a mural on the retaining walls which support the I-4 west-bound exit onto Conroy Road boarding HLE property. The mural consists of an angel and a scroll that is rolled open to reveal a watery-blue backdrop meant to blend in with HLE park theming. I encouraged Sentinel journalists to investigate whether or not HLE theme park sought permission from the City of Orlando and/or the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to create the mural.

I have legitimate concerns when I see a business defacing public property for the purposes of enhancing a private, profit-making enterprise. The powers that be at Trinity Broadcasting Network (the the money-bilking machine that owns the park) can carry on all they want about how their business is not a theme park but rather a church or a museum – thus justifying the tax-free status reprehensibly bestowed upon the theme park by Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee – but let’s be real here; on its web site, HLE lists its $50 entrance fee as a “Gate Price.” One passes through a turnstile to enter an attraction overflowing with gift shops. The park presents a nighttime fountain and light show, and HLE is currently in the process of installing a Putt Putt-style 9-hole mini golf course. HLE recently announced the repurposing of their “Smile of A Child” interactive children’s playground into the (get this) “The Trin-i-Tee Miniature Golf Course” at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Expo.
Curious that. Why on earth would a “church” be a member of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions? Could it possibly be because the charlatans at the helm of said supposed church know Goddamned well their “church” is in fact a theme park attraction?

To be fair, I should mention this particular theme park is not legally required to pay property taxes. Back in 2006, TBN sued Orange County for tax exemption, first claiming to be a church, but when that tactic didn’t seem to be working in their favor they suddenly became a “Religious Museum.” Former Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan valiantly fought on behalf of the tax paying citizens of Orange County in a case that dragged on for four long years costing tax payers God only knows (see what I did there?) how much money in an attempt to get this profit-making attraction to pay its fair share of taxes, as do it’s many competing second and third tier attraction-neighbors. While waiting for the judge to render his decision, Governor Jeb Bush and his Republican cronies in Tallahassee extended a special tax waiver to HLE just prior to good ol’ boy Jeb leaving office. So HLE won its tax-exempt status with a little help from their Christian friends in the state legislature, and that is outrageous.

TBN assets are estimated by industry analysts to be well over $800 million with an annual income of more than $60 million, yet they will not pay their fair share of taxes on their income producing property in Orange County, Florida.

The Crouch family (which owns TBN and HLE) insists the majority of HLE profits finance its TBN’s charitable activities, but given the lavish lifestyles they lead, the mansions in which they all reside, and the constant garish enhancements to the park itself, I find that claim incredibly hard to believe. Ministry Watch, a private non-profit organization which monitors the finances of religious organizations gives TBN a grade of “F” for transparency, reporting, “TBN delayed release of its financial information, failed to provide its donors with opportunities to ask questions, did not supply consolidated financial statements, and its press releases seemed intentionally designed to mislead donors.”

So this flush-with-cash-and-assets organization with nefarious standard operating procedures and highly suspect business practices – which claims to be a church – fought like hell for four years to dodge paying its fair share of property taxes and in the end they won. They pay no property taxes yet, according to the Bible, Jesus Himself (Mark 12:17) admonishes his followers to “Render unto Caesar the things that are due Caesar.” That admonishment seems pretty clear to me, but perhaps they do not use the same Bible at HLE (as does the rest of Christendom).

Regardless, obviously when it comes to rendering unto Orange County that which is due Orange County, HLE says, “Not so much.” Under these circumstances, why would the City of Orlando or FDOT give these non-givers permission to incorporate public property into their decorating scheme. Well, according to Sentinel Reporter Dan Tracy, no such permission was ever given. In fact, both the City and FDOT insist they were unaware that the mural existed at all. Through some sort of totally fucked-up sense of entitlement, HLE simply went out and painted public property without first seeking permission to do so from any City or State.

HLE refused to comment on the situation.

FDOT has answered my concerns to a point by stating HLE has agreed to restore the property in question to its original state at their expense, and it seems the state now considers the matter closed, but I cry, “Foul!” I want HLE fined for breaking the law. I want whomever was responsible for ordering said mural to be painted charged as a vandal. You can bet your sweet Bible that if a teenager were caught painting a mural on the side of the interstate, their ass would be in jail. Or are we to assume that Holy Land Experience is now also exempt from legal prosecution and free to break the law without consequence in addition to also being tax exempt?

Three weeks hence, the mural remains in place.

If, like me, you want answers about this situation, I encourage you to contact the appropriate authorities.

The email address for FDOT “general issues” is fdot.pio@dot.state.fl.us and the phone number is 850-414-4100. Please write or phone and insist they take whatever steps necessary to get the mural removed immediately and that they charge and prosecute those responsible for instituting this illegal act.

Contact Governor Rick Scott’s office and demand that the Governor rescind the tax-free status of this for-profit THEME PARK that is making millionaires of its owners while masquerading as a church and museum and paying no property taxes. I’ve been saying it for years and I’ll say it again and again and again: it is outrageous!

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