Obergefell and BYU’s Tax Exemption

On April 28, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, which challenged both the constitutionality of state bans on same-sex marriage and of states’ nonrecognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states.

By the end of June, the Justices will have decided and we’ll know the constitutional status of same-sex marriage bans in the United States. But that doesn’t mean all questions will be resolved; in fact, an exchange between Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, and Solicitor General Verrilli piqued the interest of a lot of people, especially those invested in religious educational institutions.  [Read more…]

The Church and the Wall Street Rule

wall streetEven though the federal income tax is my main professional interest, I don’t teach exclusively tax classes; every year, I also teach a Business Organizations class.[fn1]

In many business entities (especially publicly-traded corporations, on which I’ll focus here), management of the firm is separated from ownership. The shareholders are the equity owners of a corporation, but the board of directors manages it and makes the day-to-day decisions. And the goals of the board members may differ from the goals of the shareholders.  [Read more…]

The Spiritual Mission of the University

Two weeks ago, graduating BYU students and their families listened to a commencement address delivered by Professor Robert George of Princeton.

Loyola Logo

The Jesuit motto: For the greater glory of God.

In his address, Prof. George talks about the unique role that religious universities play in the world of academia; he also warned against giving up on that mission in slavish imitation of the best of secular institutions.

He’s absolutely right on the first point: religious universities have an essential role to play in the world of education and the world of scholarship. But he’s absolutely wrong in his diagnosis of following secular norms, and I want to push back against his view (which has, unfortunately, been adopted absent any nuance he may have painted with by others).  [Read more…]

Mormonism in the Internal Revenue Code

taxWhenever possible on April 15, I like to put together a quick post about some Mormon-related trivia from the tax world. This year’s edition: church financial disclosure.

In brief: tax-exempt organizations by definition don’t pay taxes. Prior to 1943, they also didn’t file any tax returns—they were pretty much entirely outside of the tax regime. That changed with the Revenue Act of 1943, which required tax-exempt organizations to file annual information returns. Broadly speaking, those returns lay out the sources of the organization’s income and where it spends that money.[fn1]

The return-filing requirement continues today, in largely (though not entirely) the same form. And, in marked contrast with most tax returns, the law requires tax-exempt organizations’ returns to be made available for public inspection. (If you want to inspect some, sign up for a free account here and have at it.)  [Read more…]

Review: Volume 23 of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies

JBMScoverFINAL_FullThere’s a huge, but underexplored, problem with the Book of Mormon: it don’t get no respect.

Richard Bushman bemoans the fact that the Book of Mormon can’t get a toehold in cultural history classes or the Harvard Divinity School, because the world outside of Mormonism gets stuck on its origins. The angelic delivery, the miraculous translation, heck, the gold plates mean must be a hoax. And, as a hoax, they don’t even get to the point where they confront the text.[fn1]  [Read more…]

Elder Holland, Free Soloing, and the Fall #ldsconf

300px-Snow_Canyon_4My childhood memories of General Conference are replete with stories about farming; my memory may exaggerate, but in it, virtually every talk derived its moral lesson from some combination of scripture and farming.[fn1]

The omnipresence of farming stories sticks in my mind in large part because I couldn’t relate to them. At all. I grew up in a Southern California suburb, entirely removed from agriculture, or even agricultural heritage. (My great-grandparents, at least on one side, had been farmers, but had given it up in favor of dentistry, a field both my grandfather and my father subsequently pursued.

I wondered, as I sat hearing about chickening the cows, or milking the turkeys, or whatever it is one does on a farm, what stories General Authorities would be telling in the future, when they were no longer all the children of farmers, when agriculture had lost its primacy in our culture.  [Read more…]

20 Years of Statistical Reports, Visualized #ldsconf

Did you know that, as of December 31, 2014, the church had 3,114 stakes with 29,621 wards and branches? Of course you do: every April during Conference, somebody reads the church’s annual Statistical Report from the prior year.

The thing is, though, that, standing alone, the Statistical Report is so much cocktail party fodder: it’s interesting (because numbers!), but ultimately doesn’t tell us much at all. Put it into some kind of context, though, and suddenly the numbers start to tell a story.

So here’s some context:  [Read more…]

(Mis)reading Scripture

book-of-mormon-and-bibleA seemingly evergreen issue in the bloggernacle: what do we do about prooftexting? On the one hand, it allows us to apply scripture to ourselves. On the other, it suggests that scripture, as written, is not up to the task of explicating the gospel and, instead, must be stretched and tortured to tell us what we need to know.[fn1]

An example: at church last year, discussion briefly turned to what we do when traditional Mormon readings of scripture turn out to be significant misreadings.[fn2] It came up in the context of God commanding Ezekiel to combine the stick of Joseph with the stick of Judah. The Gospel Doctrine manual explains that the stick of Judah is the Bible and the stick of Joseph is the Book of Mormon.  [Read more…]

The Most Controversial Bloggernacle Post in the 6,000-Year History of the World. This Week, at Least.

Historicity.

Does Open Stories Foundation Qualify As Tax-Exempt?

Last week, Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an article about John Delhin’s finances. A couple things leaped out at me, particularly salient, perhaps, because of research I’ve been doing recently, and because they raise difficult-to-see red flags, both for the Open Stories Foundation (“OSF”) and for other Mormons (or, more generally, Americans) who want to start a tax-exempt organization.[fn1]

Tl;dr: OSF looks like it is violating the prohibition against private inurement, which would compromise its tax-exempt status; it should at the very least get a tax practitioner with experience in the tax-exempt area to look closely. Also, anybody who wants to operate a tax-exempt entity needs to get competent legal advice upfront: the tax-exempt area is a minefield of compliance traps. [Read more…]

#todayatchurch

Scene: Primary singing time.

Song: “A Child’s Prayer.”

Boy to my right: beatboxing softly.  [Read more…]

Role Models

Charlie_Parker,_Tommy_Potter,_Miles_Davis,_Max_Roach_(Gottlieb_06941)In my mission farewell talk,[fn1] I spent a little time talking about one of my teenage heroes. Charlie “Bird” Parker was an alto saxophone player who revolutionized jazz. With Dizzy Gillespie, he broke with swing and invented bebop, a faster, more cerebral, more harmonically complex style of music.

I admired the Bird’s virtuosity on the saxophone. I admired his improvisational genius. And I admired his work ethic: he may have had a natural genius, but, as a teenager, he also practiced 11-15 hours a day. And it was this work ethic, as much as anything, that appealed to me, and it was this work ethic that made me think of him as a prepared to leave on my mission.[fn2] [Read more…]

Religious Freedom in Houston

In today’s news conference, Elder Oaks continued his outspoken advocacy of religious liberty, a right that he has passionately defended in the past. He provided three recent examples that, he explained, demonstrate trends away from religious liberty. One of the examples Elder Oaks cited was this:

Yet today we see new examples of attacks on religious freedom with increasing frequency. Among them are these: . . . Recently, in one of America’s largest cities, government leaders subpoenaed the sermons and notes of pastors who opposed parts of a new law on religious grounds. These pastors faced not only intimidation, but also criminal prosecution for insisting that a new gay rights ordinance should be put to a voice of the people.

While the subpoenas certainly represented an attack on religious liberty, I don’t think that’s the story here. Rather, what happened in Houston strikes me as evidence of the power of religious liberty in U.S. culture and law. Some context on the kerfuffle in Houston:  [Read more…]

On Oxfam and Your Taxes

OUS_Logo_h_greenAs Ronan mentioned a couple weeks ago, in 2015, BCC is going to encourage our readers to donate to Oxfam America to aid in its efforts to relieve poverty. Lest our altruism be imperfect, though, I wanted to mention that donating to charitable institutions doesn’t require pure altruism; that is, the warm glow of giving may not be the only benefit you receive from your donation. You may (at least, assuming you’re a U.S. taxpayer) also be able to reduce your taxes. [Read more…]

On Faith and Choice

Faith doesn’t come naturally to me. It never has, and I suspect it never will.[fn1]

And still I go, every week, and teach and learn and take part in ordinances and community and church culture and all the rest. And why?

Because I’ve chosen to believe.
[Read more…]

Religious Exemptions, BYU, and Beards

About two months ago, BYU admitted in the New York Times that, although it had a medical and a theatrical exception to its no-beard policy, it didn’t allow for religious exemptions from the policy.

That struck many of us as outrageous (see this prior BCC post and the comments), especially in light of the LDS church’s sincere commitment to encouraging and protecing religious liberty. Well, the policy has changed.  [Read more…]

BYU, Religious Freedom (or its Lack), and Beards

Used subject to Creative Commons license. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Photo by Adam Jones.

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the New York Times’s article on BYU and beards at least dozens of times in your Facebook feed.

Clearly, BYU’s anti-beard rule is stupid. It just is. That said, stupid isn’t necessarily an affirmative reason to do away with it: plenty of institutions have plenty of stupid rules, and, on the list of stupid rules in the world, the beard prohibition isn’t terribly high.[fn1] For the most part, it’s stupid, but not malicious.

Unfortunately, I learned from the Times article, there’s one situation where it is malicious, hypocritical, immoral, and damaging. BYU no longer offers a religious exemption from its no-beard policy. And that needs to change.[fn2] [Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing, Take 2

ParsonageHarpersLast week, almost a year after a district court in Wisconsin declared the parsonage exemption unconstitutional, the Seventh Circuit has reversed her decision. And thus ends a (brief) chapter in the religious culture wars.

Or not . . . [Read more…]

Visualizing Conference, October 2014

Full GC

What stood out for you at the most recent General Conference? [Read more…]

From the Mailbag: Mission Presidents and Taxes

Okay, not actually a mailbag. But a couple months ago, somebody asked a question on my tax blog:

LDS mission presidents’ compensation/tax advice? Sam, are you aware of the tax advice in the mission presidents handbook – that living expenses for self & family (housing, food, transport, medical, etc.) are paid by the Church, but are not to be reported as income?

Honestly, I wasn’t aware of it but some quick Googling indicates that, yes, the church disclaims any employer-employee relationship with mission presidents and advises them that they’re not taxable on reimbursements from the church.

Could that possibly be right?  [Read more…]

Attacking the Family

Church leaders remind us, on a not-infrequent basis, that the family is under attack, and that we, as members, have a duty to defend marriage and family.[fn1]

As faithful members, I believe that we have an obligation to take these warnings seriously and, more particularly, to actively strengthen the legal and cultural underpinnings of marriage and family in our respective societies.

But defending the family against attack requires us to first understand what is getting in the way of familial formation.  [Read more…]

Days of Conference Past: Homeowners’ Edition

In every April General Conference, we hear the Statistical Report for the prior year. Roughly speaking, the Statistical Report tells us the number of church units, the number of members and baptisms, the number of missionaries, and the number of temples.

And reading a Statistical Report in conference has at least a century of precedent. I’ve been skimming through a number of early-20th-century April Conference Reports, and in April 1915, Pres. Joseph F. Smith read a statistical report in his opening remarks. [fn1] [Read more…]

An Economic Explanation for BYU-I’s Dress Standards(?)

Ashton Kutcher couldn't walk around BYU-I like that.

Ashton Kutcher couldn’t walk around BYU-I like that.

As Steve highlighted earlier today,[fn1] the BYU-Idaho dress and grooming standards are arbitrary and relatively absurd. I mean, seriously, as a born-and-raised Californian, I can’t comprehend a dress code that bans flip-flops.[fn2] The dress and grooming standards can’t be all about modesty, because ankles and toes and beards, oh my! And if all they’re about is obedience, well, that’s stupid. There’s no spiritual value to obeying arbitrary rules.[fn3]

But maybe their actual function isn’t modesty. Or obedience. May it’s economics.  [Read more…]

Germany’s Church Tax

A couple days ago, the Wall Street Journal highlighted (subscription required[fn1]) the accelerating loss of members certain churches in Germany are facing. The popular press is placing the blame at least partly on the new administration of Germany’s Church Tax.

What? you ask. A church tax? What’s that?

So glad you asked. [Read more…]

Fornication Pantaloons (updated)

Tellason_jeans,_button_fly

Can we all agree that this is an abominable Gentile fashion? Because Brigham Young certainly can.

For the last year or so, the last page of The Atlantic  has been a column called “The Big Question,” where various notable people answer a question posed by the magazine. In September, it asked: “What is the most significant fashion innovation in history?” In Jennifer Barnett’s mind, the runner-up was buttons down the front of men’s pants in the 1830s. Which is how this question ties into Mormonism: Barnett says that this innovation “prompted Brigham Young to denounce them as ‘fornication pantaloons.'”

I had two reactions when I read this. The first was that those two words, put together, may be the greatest phrase in the history of clothing. The second, though, was skepticism. That sounds like too good a story to actually verify.  [Read more…]

Church Finances, 1947-Style

In April 1959, the Church published its last financial report. The last here is important, though, because, for almost half a century leading up to that report, the Church presented a relatively detailed financial report in each April General Conference.

Until a couple months ago, though, I’d never seen the financial reports that the Church issued. In the course of his reading and research, J. Stapley came across the Church’s 1947 financial report, and offered to let me blog it. I jumped at the chance, and the disclosure turns out, in many ways, to be as fascinating as I’d hoped.  [Read more…]

In Which I Unpack a Finance-Based Atonement Parable (or Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Work on Wall Street)

Understanding the Atonement is tough.[fn1] To try to understand it, theologians have come up with theories to describe the whys and hows of the Atonement, and stories to illustrate how the Atonement works.

We’ve got a handful of favorite illustrative stories in Mormonism, including bicycles and lickings. I was recently reading chapter 12 of the Gospel Principles manual, and I came across an Atonement story that I haven’t seen in a while: a parable of a debtor and a creditor. What follows are my thoughts as I reread it:[fn2]  [Read more…]

Work We Must

ChildlabourcoalIn the comments to Russell’s missionary post, there seems to be a strong consensus potential missionaries need to learn to work hard. And I agree; missionary work demands hard work. A corollary, according to many of the comments, is that kids these days do not, in fact, learn to work hard.

That assertion I find a little more problematic. Partly, it’s because I teach Millennials professionally and, in my experience, many of them do, in fact, work hard. And partly it’s because the accusation of laziness is an evergreen one; every generation, it seems, considers the subsequent generation the laziest ever (conveniently, it seems to me, forgetting their own youthful laziness).  [Read more…]

Defining Doctrine

In Church, and in Church-related discussions, I often hear people differentiate Church policies from doctrine. Policies, they say, can (and not infrequently do) change; doctrine, on the other hand, cannot. It has never changed and will never change.

These doctrine-vs.-policy discussions are rarely satisfying, in my experience. We argue over whether we’re talking about doctrine or policy, but rarely make it any further. And in part, I believe, the impediment is that we don’t really have a clear sense of what we’re talking about when we say “doctrine.”  [Read more…]

Some Tax Benefits Are Just for Churches

(I originally wanted to call this “Pastoral Housing, Take 2″[fn1] but, it turns out, pastoral housing is only one small aspect of the case.)

Last week, a federal court in Kentucky issued a decision in a lawsuit that could have far-reaching ramifications for churches.[fn2] In broad strokes, American Atheists, Inc., Atheists of Northern Indiana, Inc., and Atheist Archives of Kentucky, Inc. sued the IRS, arguing that certain tax provisions applicable solely to churches were unconstitutionally discriminatory. [Read more…]

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