Certain T-Mobile fees amount to religious infringement, Freedom to Pray argues

T-Mobile USA Inc. markets itself as the Un-carrier of America for redefining how wireless services are purchased and specifically touts “unlimited everything,” including Netflix, in-flight Wi-Fi and international data, on four lines for $40 each, including taxes and fees — “so you won’t pay a penny more,” according to the company’s main website page.

But is that the whole story?

Not according to Freedom to Pray, a grassroots organization formed earlier this year to advocate for people of all faiths who its members say are being forced to end their participation in prayer groups through free conference line services because T-Mobile charges a penny-per-minute fee.

“Take action to prevent T-Mobile and any other greedy cellphone carriers who follow suit from gouging and targeting prayer customers with unnecessary and unfair costs,” urges the nonprofit’s Change.org petition, which already has garnered nearly 10,000 signatures, according to national prayer leader Kay Horner, a Freedom to Pray spokesperson and executive director of the Helper Connection and the Awakening America Alliance.

“Word is spreading rapidly through social media,” Horner told Financial Regulation News. “Consumers have continued to press T-Mobile for a response, but have yet to receive any action to resolve this situation. So far, T-Mobile is the only carrier we know of that is charging these 1 cent per minute fees.”

This fee is in addition to T-Mobile’s monthly service plan charges and quickly adds up for individuals spending hours in prayer, often multiple times each week, via the phone, according to Freedom to Pray, which formed in February.

Freedom to Pray’s founder, Dave Butts, who is president of Harvest Prayer Ministries and chairman of the National Day of Prayer, “saw those charges as a blatant attack on prayer,” Horner said. Butts has said that he believes T-Mobile’s charges are an attack on the right to exercise faith freely and that he believes the carrier is impeding religious freedom.

And not only do such charges contradict T-Mobile’s “unlimited everything” advertisements, but Freedom to Pray says customers interpret such charges as being applied in a discriminatory fashion.

T-Mobile responded on Wednesday to a request for comment from Financial Regulation News with: “T-Mobile implemented a $.01 charge per minute for calls to out-of-plan numbers. These calls tend to cost more for T-Mobile to complete and the $.01 charge helps us manage those costs. Toll-free numbers (e.g., 800, 888, 844, etc.) are not affected. Customers who dial one of these out-of-plan numbers hear a message letting them know that there will be an additional charge. They can avoid the charge by simply hanging up and using a different service that offers toll-free numbers.”

T-Mobile’s website has included information stating that the company last October decided to make certain conferencing, chat and dial-up radio phone numbers “out-of-plan” numbers. However, people were angry they didn’t receive advance notice about the out-of-plan numbers and said they were informed after they had purchased unlimited T-Mobile call plans, according to Freedom to Pray.

After hundreds of complaints, Butts “reached out to the FreeConferenceCall.com CEO to support the organization with a petition to stop T-Mobile,” Horner said. “This movement provides a means of response for people of all faiths to keep prayer lines free.”

Freeconferencecall.com is one of the primary services that has been providing free prayer lines for 16 years. Horner said both she and Butts use FreeConferenceCall.com to run their prayer calls and “have found the no-cost service to be a valuable and vital part of our ministries.”

And that’s why Freedom to Pray was started as a grassroots movement to advocate “for faithful prayer warriors who have incurred charges from T-Mobile on free call lines,” Horner explained.

“Consumers deserve answers. As a nonprofit advocacy organization, we don’t have the answers, which is why we are providing a place for those affected to voice their concerns,” she added.

Horner added that Freedom to Pray represents customers “who are asking the carriers to be transparent and honest from the outset about what additional charges and fees might be incurred.”

Customers would like to see T-Mobile list on its web site the phone numbers that are considered “out of plan” and subject to additional charges in order for them to make informed decisions.

Feeling stuck
Experiencing a similar situation are members of Divine Word International Ministries, which is led by Bishop Dr. Kofi Adonteng Boateng.

Divine Word initially began as a small prayer group — Divine Prayer Line — on a free conference line that quickly grew into a full-fledged, global ministry with roughly 5,000 minimum callers each day and up to 8,000 per day, Adonteng Boateng told Financial Regulation News on Thursday.

“But we have lost more than half of our congregation, more than 4,000 people, because MetroPCS, which was acquired by T-Mobile, began charging 1 cent per minute on the conference line and most people cannot do that any longer,” he said.

Adonteng Boateng added that the new charge for the conference line call-in, which previously had been a free service, was not advertised online, nor were members notified about the extra charge. Prayer callers only learned about the charge when it was instituted after they called the regular conference line and received a recording telling them they would be charged a penny a minute for the prayer call, he said.

“You only realized what happened once you called the prayer line and before you were allowed to join in, then you get an announcement that it was a charge outside of the regular unlimited package that we had with T-Mobile,” he explained. “Everything was supposed to be unlimited with T-Mobile, even international calls.”

What’s a disgruntled congregation to do?

“T-Mobile is unwilling to negotiate and has refused to let me speak personally to the company’s president,” Adonteng Boateng said, adding that company spokespeople he has been able to speak to have informed him that since such lines account for about 1 percent of T-Mobile’s overall business, “this really means nothing to them.”

Basically, Divine Word leaders feel stuck between a rock and a hard place — unsure about the impact of leaving T-Mobile and worried about trusting another carrier that might operate the same way.

“We are not sure what we are going to do,” Adonteng Boateng said when asked about the ministry’s next steps. “We are trying to pull ourselves together to figure out what to do.”