The Tax Roots of OD2(?)

It’s become an article of faith in some circles that the end of the racial temple and priesthood ban was motivated, at least in part, by the specter of the church losing its tax-exempt status. And that’s not just the bloggernacle, and it’s not just ex-Mormon reddit (though you can certainly find the assertion—repeatedly—on various internet fora). The same claim is made in academically rigorous places.

For example, in The Mormon Church and Blacks: A Documentary History, Harris and Bringhurst write,

Specifically, the Mormon hierarchy became concerned about potential lawsuits over their tax exemption status, particularly in light of the student protests against BYU in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They had watched very closely the Bob Jones University case, in which the IRS revoked its tax exemption status in an important 1975 ruling.

(p. 106)

They go on to quote a 1978 letter from church historian Leonard Arrington to his children where he talks about Wisconsin refusing to exempt church property from its property tax because of the church’s racial discrimination, and extrapolating from that the church’s potential loss of its exemption may have been one reason why the revelation came when it did.

And it’s clearly possible that the potential loss of exemption played into church leaders’ urgency in 1978. On the other hand, I’m not convinced. I can’t find any contemporaneous evidence (besides Arrington’s letter, only he’s guessing—it suggests that he wasn’t privy to any conversations citing Bob Jones) that there was public pressure for revoking the church’s exemption, or that the church was concerned about the potential loss of exemption.

[Update: Ardis has done some amazing research over at Keepapitchinin; while it’s impossible to absolutely prove a negative, she details how Arrington’s letter is third-hand. That’s not to say the church wasn’t concerned about a loss of exemption in Wisconsin, but it is to say that the letter itself doesn’t provide a ton of evidence of that.]

I mean, in searching newspaper databases, I’ve found assertions that the church was motivated, not by pure revelation, but to preserve its tax-exempt status. Typical of that assertion is this:

Some church critics found the action [i.e., eliminating the temple and priesthood ban] intolerable, and denounced the change as a business move rather than a revelation from God. There were suggestions that ordination of black priests was motivated by fear of losing tax-exempt status.[fn1]

The problem is, this piece was written a decade after OD2, and half a decade after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Bob Jones that said the First Amendment didn’t prevent the IRS from revoking the tax exemption of organizations that violated a fundamental public policy. So by 1988, the risk of the church losing its exemption likely felt a lot more salient, and retrospective memories could easily slip it in.

Still, the search function on most PDF newspaper databases I’ve searched is not remarkably powerful; it’s clearly possible that my searches have missed contemporaneous agitation against the church’s exemption. And I just as clearly don’t have access to church records (though again, the fact that Arrington had to extrapolate his conclusion suggests there likely aren’t any such records).

So I’d welcome correction if I’m wrong: is there any evidence from the 1970s that individuals or groups were agitating for the church to lose its tax-exempt status as a result of its racially-discriminatory temple and priesthood ban? And is there any contemporaneous evidence that church leaders were concerned with the risk of the church losing its exemption?

(Bonus question: if anybody was living in Wisconsin in the 1970s, do you remember the state refusing to exempt church property from the property tax? I haven’t spent a lot of time trying to run that down, and I certainly can if I need to, but if anybody can give me a starting point, I’ll definitely take it!)

[fn1] Lance Guerwell, Mormons Have Accepted Black Priests for Past Decade, Times Herald, Jun. 11, 1988, at 4.


  1. Pure speculation but I feel that tax issues and other pressure may have brought the topic front and center and forced the brethren to deal with it but didn’t drive the decision making. The area I recently moved to in the South is many years behind the rest of the church and much of the decision making is in the style that we now bristle at. I don’t see them responding well to being put into the figurative corner.

  2. J Stuart says:

    Matt’s book comes out this year or early next, I believe.

  3. I’m an obvious person to comment (I was around and paying attention, and even in Wisconsin for part of the 1970s although I graduated high school and left for college in ’73), and my relationship to Spencer W. made me a little more attentive than average), but I am no help. I don’t recall tax issues coming up anywhere, including in Wisconsin, except the general rhetoric that “they should lose their exemption” which comes up any time anybody dislikes something a church does. Property tax issues in particular are notoriously local–not a state matter, sometimes county, but most often city. For a research project, I would focus on Dane County and Madison (within Dane County), which were among the top three most progressive liberal even socialist areas in the country.

  4. I’m skeptical that tax considerations were a major driver of this. But what do I know, I was still in the first year of my mission when it happened, so I was not exactly attuned to what was going on. Still, my sense of the time is that it was a calm season for this issue, which may have played a role, as the Church hates to be perceived as doing the right thing only because they were forced into it. There may have been chatter about going after the Church’s tax exemption, but at the time things were quiet. I personally believe that a better grasp of the history (and that Joseph was not behind the ban in the first place) significantly greased the skids for change. and at some point SWK came to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do, but then he had to manage the strong personalities in the Quorum, which he managed brilliantly.

  5. Cathy Stowell says:

    I heard there was an interview with LeGrand Richards by I believe a radio personality in which he indicates that it was not a revelation but a business decision.

  6. Cathy, you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I’m skeptical, not the least because revelation (whatever that is) isn’t inherently inconsistent with business decisions (whatever they are), but also because that doesn’t strike me as a terribly plausible way for LeGrand Richards to speak.

    Also, while assertions like this are easy enough to find, they’re hard enough to source. I think I’ve figured out roughly what the Wisconsin thing Arrington was referring to was, and I’m pretty sure it hadn’t affected the church (though I haven’t run it down thoroughly). Given the time frame he’s talking about, it looks like the legal department guy he was paraphrasing was referring to (or at least thinking of) a lawsuit that involved Masonic lodges. Which is why specificity is kinda important in making historical assertions.

  7. Alf O'Mega says:

    I think the interview Cathy is thinking of is the one transcribed here:

    There is an exchange (appended to the end of this comment) that I’ve seen quoted to support the idea that the change in policy wasn’t a revelation, but if you read further along, it’s clear that the decision was prayerful and understood by the leadership to be the will of God. Elsewhere in the interview there is a question about whether there was a separate revelation text besides what was drafted and presented announcing the change, and Elder Richards says that they didn’t think it necessary. In the subsequent exchange of letters (also posted at the link above), it becomes clear that Elder Richards didn’t think that he was speaking on the record, although he did say they could quote him (presumably privately). I think it’s the businesslike, pragmatic way he talks about the decision that troubles people who want to hold the modern leadership to a more voice-of-God style of revelation.

    Wesley Walters: On this revelation, of the priesthood to the Negro, I’ve heard all kinds of stories: I’ve heard that Christ appeared to the Apostles. I’ve heard that Joseph Smith appeared; and then I heard another story that Spencer Kimball had had a concern about this for some time and simply shared it with the apostles, and they decided that this was the right time to move in that direction. Now are any of those stories true, or are they all . . .

    LeGrand Richards: Well, the last one is pretty true, and I might tell you what provoked it in a way. Down in Brazil, there is so much Negro blood in the population there that it’s hard to get leaders that don’t have Negro blood in them. We just built a temple down there. It’s going to be dedicated in October. All those people with Negro blood in them have been raising the money to build that temple. And then, if we don’t change, then they can’t even use it.

  8. Armand Mauss says:

    I would argue that the Richards explanation quoted above, at the end of the Alf O’Mega post, is the strongest argument here. Forgive the self-citation, but I’d suggest you review pages 236-40 of my All Abraham’s Children. You will notice that under Pres. Kimball’s leadership, the Q15 had already decided, during 1974, to build a temple in Brazil, which was officially announced in March, 1975. That is when the die was cast, in my opinion. From there, it was just a matter of getting some of the more reluctant Brethren to go with the inevitable.

  9. J Douglas says:

    The smoking gun in this situation is Solicitor General Rex Lee’s recusal from the Bob Jones case because he had defended the church in a similar situation. So we know there was some tax pressure in the church and/or BYU of some sort but I don’t believe the case ever saw public exposure.

  10. Thanks, Alf and Armand, for your comments. I have no doubt that Brazil (and its temple) provided a significant incentive for the church to change its temple and priesthood ban. Because of my professional and personal interests, I’m particularly interested in whether the church’s tax-exempt status (or its perception of its tax-exempt status) played a part in its decision, and whether others argued that it should lose tax-exempt status because of its policies.

    And J Douglas, that’s not the most compelling smoking gun I’ve seen, because it requires a ton of assumptions to get there. In The Tenth Justice, Caplan writes that Rex Lee, the recent Solicitor General, recused himself from the Bob Jones case because he “had once represented the Mormon church when it faced a problem like Bob Jones’s …” (51). But it cites to interviews with Lee, and doesn’t explain what problem the church had faced, how it was like Bob Jones, or what capacity he had represented the church in. I can’t find anything in a Westlaw search—for all I know, he signed (or helped draft) an amicus brief in the Bob Jones case itself.

    Which is to say, I’ve read about Lee, and tried to follow that thread where it led, but it really doesn’t lead to any additional information.

  11. Sam, for what it’s worth, I did my writing requirement paper/law review note in law school on the legal issues surrounding the priesthood ban, and I don’t remember anything at all about tax issues being relevant (certainly nothing about tax exemption made it into the paper).

  12. Thanks, Conrad!

  13. Matt Harris says:

    Sam: Thanks for your thoughtful post. Lest the readers of this blog get the wrong impression, I don’t think the threat of the IRS revoking the church’s tax exemption status had anything to do with the priesthood revelation, the internet notwithstanding. On the other hand, the brethren were concerned about it. Beyond the Arrington letter, I have other evidence that I will present in my next book. You might be interested to know that I contacted Pres. Carter several years ago and asked him if he pressured the IRS to pester the church over the priesthood restriction. He wrote back a warm letter denying such claims. There was nothing in his presidential papers, either, to confirm that the IRS went after the church. Pres Kimball’s diaries are silent on this subject as well.

  14. Thanks, Matt. (Side note: I certainly hope I didn’t give the impression that you thought the threat of revocation had anything to do with it—your book definitely didn’t leave that impression.) I do look forward to seeing what you have in your book—if church leaders were concerned about the potential loss of exemption, their concerns were misguided, but even misguided concerns can lead to action.

    And fascinating that Pres. Carter responded; the assertion that he pressured the IRS is kind of a crazy one for a lot of reasons (not the least of which is that, after Nixon, Congress put in a number of protections to ensure that presidents couldn’t use the IRS to go after their enemies!).

    And I look forward to reading the additional information in your book.

  15. Matt Harris says:

    One more thing: Arrington didn’t speculate about the IRS: he heard from church legal counsel, Myles Sorenson, that the church lost its tax exemption in Wisconsin and was poised to lose it in Hawaii. Again, though I do not believe that this was a major factor in the priesthood revelation—there were other, more pressing things that concerned the brethren.

  16. And, not to be too pedantic, but he was definitely speculating about the IRS. Tax-exempt organizations’ state tax exemption doesn’t have any bearing on whether they’re exempt for federal purposes (though for some states, their state tax exemption is contingent on being exempt for federal tax purposes). He may well have heard (or misheard) Sorenson say that the church lost its exemption in Wisconsin (though I’m a little skeptical that it actually did—my skepticism isn’t of you, but it’s of either Arrington or Sorenson), and from that he speculated that maybe the church would lose its federal exemption sometime in the future.

  17. Arrington didn’t hear this from Myles Sorensen; he heard it from Gordon Irving who heard it from Myles Sorensen, in a momentary conversation during the excitement of the first minutes after learning about the revelation when speculation and gossip was rampant. Arrington wasn’t even in the office that day to hear that fleeting and unprobed claim; he was home with a sore throat, and did his best to capture as much as he could of what he had not witnessed the previous day.

  18. Bad editing: “he did his best the following day to capture …”

  19. Thank you, Ardis! I’ve updated the post with a link to your research and, for anyone who doesn’t want to dive into the OP, you can find Ardis’s insightful and careful analysis here.

  20. BTW, Ardis, I mean to ask (then forgot): who was Myles Sorensen? Was he inside counsel at the church, or was he with Kirton McConkie?

  21. Good question, Sam. If he is ultimately the source of Arrington’s claim concerning Wisconsin and Hawaii tax status (and so far as this thread is concerned, he IS the ultimate source; Matt may well have other relevant sources but has not hinted at them so I can’t comment), then it is important to weigh the evidence and consider his credibility.

    I spent a couple of hours yesterday trying to identify Sorenson but with no success so far. I have found no Miles/Myles Sorensen/-son in the Salt Lake Valley (there are two men in Sanpete Co. with other first names and Miles as a middle name, who would be surprisingly old or young to be the man in this case); he doesn’t appear in city directories, or in the newspapers, or in the Utah Bar Association register. Perhaps he *is* one of those Miles-as-a-middle-name gentlemen and I can’t recognize him in records that use his first name. I don’t know. Yet.

    We should note, though, that the only reference to him that I do know of — Arrington’s diary, where Arrington records the Sorenson claim as a second-hand report through his colleague — identifies him only as “from [the] Church Law Department,” and not as “church legal counsel” as he is called in an earlier comment here. From Franklin S. Richards in the 19th century to Kirton McConkie today, “church legal counsel” have been attorneys and firms in the community, not internal employees who might handle lower-level matters, such as routine property transactions or work contracts. Myles Sorenson may have been a fully qualified attorney working in-house and completely familiar with tax cases, or, he could have been a low-level non-attorney employee only generally familiar with what he heard in the office but eager to contribute something to the excitement of those first moments after learning of the 1978 revelation, or anything between. If he’s the ultimate source of Arrington’s claim in that letter to his children, we need to know who he is and whether he is likely to have known what he was talking about. I confess I cannot yet answer that.

  22. I wrote my paper as a second-year law student more than ten years ago with very little in the way of guidance or direction, so I’m sure I missed all kinds of obvious things, but I wound up reading and writing a lot more about the cultural tensions from inside and outside the church. Confrontations with the NAACP (which included at least one lawsuit involving the church’s involvement in Scouting), boycotts of BYU sports and MoTab, local neighborhood resistance to the Manhattan temple, etc. And lots of rumors about opposition to the church that turned out to not be true–purported marches by the NAACP and/or the Black Panthers intended to destroy temples, etc.–but that were widespread and pervasive enough that at one point J. Edgar Hoover supposedly told the First Presidency yo cancel General Conference (at least according to O. Kendall White).

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Sam, re: your bonus question, I was not living in Wisconsin in the 1970s. However, at the time I left for my mission in October 1977, my Illinois ward was part of the Madison stake, and we would travel there for various events and dances and so forth. I have zero recollection of any chatter about the stake center losing its tax exemption. Admittedly, that’s not the kind of thing I naturally would have known or cared about as an 18 turning 19-year old, but the adults in my orbit (in particular my father) would have very much known and cared and talked about it, and I don’t recollect anything whatsoever along those lines. If there were local anxiety about the Church losing a property tax exemption, I never perceived it.

  24. Ardis, maybe Myles (Miles) Sorenson was local counsel working on the case in Wisconsin?

  25. Before I put in effort there, I’ll have to wait for Sam to determine whether a case requiring Church representation in Wisconsin even existed. I’m not sure he’s there yet.

  26. I enjoyed reading the chapter on the revelation in Edward Kimbell’s biography of SWK. I certainly didn’t get the sense that SWK seemed concerned about the tax issue, or that it was even close to being a central issue. For those who haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

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