LITTLE ROCK -- Televangelist Jim Bakker hopes to thwart attempts by Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to obtain personal information of his congregation members as part of a consumer-protection investigation into his promotion of a liquid solution to cure the covid-19 infection.
Bakker's attorneys said Rutledge's efforts were an affront to religious freedom and "disturbing."
Amanda Priest, an attorney general's office spokeswoman, said Rutledge's request for information "relates to an investigation of Mr. Bakker for falsely promoting products as a cure for covid-19."
A civil action was filed late last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on behalf of Bakker and his Morningside Church and Morningside Church Productions, based in Blue Eye, Mo.
The action was taken less than three months after Missouri sued Bakker, alleging he peddled a fake cure for covid-19 on his television show.
Priest said Arkansas consumers were "deceived" by Bakker and may have been harmed "financially and physically" by the pastor's actions.
The product in question is Silver Solution. In their complaint, Bakker's attorneys stated that he and his church "feel divinely inspired" to offer the product to the world.
Much of Bakker's teachings center on the expectation of and preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ. His attorneys said Bakker believes Silver Solution and products like it "have been made available to this generation by God," according to court documents filed last week.
Silver Solution is a liquid and comes in a bottle. It's described as a colloidal silver, which is a product often sold on the internet as a dietary supplement.
In a news release, Jay Nixon, one of Bakker's attorneys and a former governor and attorney general of Missouri, said Rutledge's information-seeking could set a dangerous precedent.
"It's extremely disturbing that this is happening in America and especially in the State of Arkansas," Nixon stated. "It's a very dangerous and sinister overstep when the government demands the names, addresses and personal financial information of church members. It could be your church next."
He went on to state that if someone donates to a ministry, it's never the government's business.
Other defendants listed in the court filing are the district attorneys for two California counties -- Merced and San Joaquin -- and Mike Feuer, the city attorney for Los Angeles.
Another of Bakker's attorneys, Derek Ankrom, was pointed in his criticism of Rutledge.
"While some likely won't be surprised that government officials on the West Coast are not respecting the First Amendment rights of Christian churches in the middle of the country, it's appalling that Attorney General Rutledge would attempt to violate a church's constitutional rights, and the privacy rights of its congregation, in such a blatant manner," he said.
In his complaint, Ankrom stated that Rutledge's pursuit of personal information "presents the question of whether a governmental agency may, in the name of 'consumer protection,' intrusively supervise, inquire into, censor or punish religiously-motivated speech of a pastor to his congregation."
Priest said the issue is public deception and not religious freedom.
"Attorney General Rutledge has a long history of fighting for religious freedom from government overreach," she said. "At the same time, she will continue to vigorously fight against those who would deceive Arkansans into false cures and fraudulently steal their money."
Last month it was announced that Bakker, 80, had suffered a stroke and would be taking a break from his program, The Jim Bakker Show, to recover.
Bakker became nationally known in the 1970s and '80s while hosting, along with his then-wife Tammy Faye Bakker, The PTL Club, a Christian television program. In 1987, he resigned after a sex scandal and a couple of years later was convicted on several counts of wire and mail fraud.
Jim Bakker returned to televangelism less than a decade after his release from federal prison in 1994.