Shelter-In-Place and the Sacrament

Just over a week ago, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve announced that the church was (temporarily) suspending meetings throughout the world as a response to the novel coronavirus. In the announcement, we’re asked to continue to care and watch out for each other. The letter also tells bishops and stake presidents to figure out how to allow members to take the sacrament at least once a month.

I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but the idea of taking the sacrament at least monthly, while nice in theory, could be a significant problem in reality. A couple days ago, a well-meaning member of my mother-in-law’s ward came to visit her. The visitor was, apparently, unaware of the risks of coronavirus, but my mother-in-law is in a high-risk demographic (older than 65 with some underlying health issues). [Read more…]

Handholding At BYU: Just For Temple Marriage?

CES just issued a letter attempting to clarify its removal of the Honor Code section entitled “Homosexual Behavior.”  To further clarify BYU’s position, its Honor Code office posted a Q&A, which included this:

Can members of our campus community who identify as LGBTQ or SSA be disciplined for going on a date, holding hands and kissing?
Elder Johnson in his letter counsels, “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.” Therefore, any same-sex romantic behavior is a violation of the principles of the Honor Code.

This raises a handful of questions, and I’d love it if the BYU Honor Code office could answer them:

  1. When I was at BYU (years and years ago), I learned about NCMO (non-committal make-outs). The non-committal part suggests that it cannot lead to eternal marriage. Therefore, is it not compatible with principles included in the Honor Code?
  2. For that matter, most dates and relationships aren’t going to end up in eternal marriage. So is most heterosexual dating incompatible with the principles included in the Honor Code?
  3. For that matter, hanging out with member of your own gender is unlikely to lead to eternal marriage. So are girls’ nights incompatible with the principles included in the Honor Code? How about guys hanging out playing Xbox?
  4. What about members who date and marry nonmembers? Those relationships are at best unlikely to lead to eternal marriage. Is dating a nonmember incompatible with the principles included in the Honor Code?

[Read more…]

Did You Know Parsonages Are Taxable in Utah?

Churches & Parsonage, Antrim, N.H. From the New York Public Library. Public domain.

This week is my week to blog over at the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog. And for today’s post, I did some absolutely blatant self-promotion.

And you know what? That self-promotion may be of some interest to BCC readers, too, so I thought I’d mention it here. I recently posted God Is My Roommate? Tax Exemptions for Parsonages Yesterday, Today, and (if Constitutional) Tomorrow to SSRN. I’ve posted a number of times about Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the case challenging the constitutionality of providing an income tax exclusion for housing allowances paid to clergy. And this paper derives from that decision.

Broadly speaking, I look at the current and historical property tax treatment of parsonages and other clergy housing in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. And that history is absolutely fascinating! And also, that history resonates with Mormonism in two places: Utah and Idaho. [Read more…]

Coronavirus and the Sacrament

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I were out of state at a climbing competition, and an old high school friend was kind enough to let us stay with her and her family. My friend is a Presbyterian pastor, so that Sunday we went to her church. She wasn’t preaching that particular day, but she still participated in the service.

Part of the services involved standing and greeting the people around you. My friend introduced this part and said that, in light of coronavirus[fn1] and flu season[2], instead of shaking hands, we could fist bump, tap elbows, or give the peace sign. Everybody laughed, then stood and gave fist bumps or the peace sign.

As the coronavirus shows signs of become a pandemic, it seems like we should start thinking about changes we need to make in our worship service. And it seems to me that the sacrament is a big place where we should seriously consider change. And I’m not talking just those who break the bread. The new handbook explicitly tells “[t]hose who prepare, bless, or pass the sacrament first wash their hands with soap or other cleanser.”

Even assuming they do it, the people preparing, administering, and passing the sacrament aren’t the only (and probably aren’t the primary) germ vector we deal with. I mean, while my kids are getting older, they were little once. Even if you’re fully awake and fully aware, there’s almost no way to prevent little fingers from touching several chunks of bread before choosing the one they take. The most careful adult fingers can still brush other chunks of bread. And there’s no concomitant requirement that those of us in the congregation wash our hands before participating in the Sacrament. [Read more…]

Traditions of Their [Mothers]: Girls Should Be Passing the Sacrament

A little over two years ago, I wrote a post explaining that our current rule that only priesthood holders can pass the sacrament has no basis in scripture. D&C 20:58 explicitly says that teachers and deacons lack the authority to “administer the sacrament”; ergo, if we allow teachers and deacons to prepare and pass the sacrament, those things must not be part of the administration of the sacrament.

And if they’re not, then the Handbook’s requirement that only “[d]eacons, teachers, priests, and Melchizedek Priesthood holders may pass the sacrament” is based, not on scripture, but on tradition. Now, tradition is certainly not always a bad thing, but the Book of Mormon warns us that tradition can potentially impede our ability to know and understand God. I think that’s doubly true when the tradition actively harms a person or group of people by, for example, not allowing them to participate and serve fully in our religious community. [Read more…]

NonBelief Relief and Church Financial Disclosure

As we’re all very aware, questions of financial transparency have recently become tremendously salient to the church and its members.

There are, of course, ways to remedy the issue of financial transparency. The church could voluntarily release financial information. Or Congress could change U.S. tax law to require churches—like virtually every other tax-exempt organization—to file a Form 990, which would then be released to the public.

NonBelief Relief wanted to help spur this second option. NonBelief Relief was a charitable organization formed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Its charitable mission was to provide humanitarian-style aid, improving the world and the situation of people here. It also had a secondary purpose: to challenge the constitutionality of the tax law requiring non-church tax-exempt organizations to file information returns, but exempting churches from that requirement.[fn1] [Read more…]

So You Have $100 Billion.

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple weeks (interrupted, of course, for impeachment and Christmas) about the church’s $100 billion endowment. And I want to add to that discussion. Specifically, I want to think about the question of how the church could change with a $100 billion endowment.

I’ll note that in the earliest iterations of this post, I thought about freaking this as some sort of (unsatiric) modest proposal.

But that has a couple significant problems. What I’m going to lay out here is not at all modest; it would represent a sea change in church finances. Moreover, it’s not a proposal so much as it is brainstorming. But a $100 billion endowment absolutely requires brainstorming. And my brainstorm?

[Read more…]

Some Thoughts About Ensign Peak Advisers and the Church

The Religion Unplugged and Washington Post stories raise (at least) three important questions. I’m going to try to address all three here (though at least one will be really quick), and I suspect that this post will be unsatisfying both to those who want to see the church vindicated and those who want to see it get its comeuppance. And that’s because, contrary to popular perception, the tax law isn’t an area full of clear answers and bright lines. It’s also because many tax issues are fact-dependent, and we lack many of the facts. To the extent that you want more information and analysis, Peggy Fletcher Stack has been doing some great reporting on this.

The three main issues I see are these:

  1. Does the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  2. Should the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  3. Does the $100 billion in investments violate the tax law?

Now, I have absolutely no answer to number 1. I’m slightly skeptical, just because growing $12 billion in 1997 to $100 billion today (with two significant market downturns happening in those 22 years) strikes me as requiring some pretty aggressive assumptions. On the other hand, it’s at least plausible. And notably, the church has the ability to tell us how much it’s worth. To the extent it chooses not to do so, assertions like this will continue to find traction. Since the ball’s in the church’s court here, and since I have neither knowledge of nor the ability to find out the net asset value of the church’s investments on my own, for purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that he’s right, and that the church has $100 billion invested in Ensign Peak Advisers.

[Read more…]

$100 Billion?!? (A Placeholder)

Hey all, I assume by now you’ve all seen the Washington Post story about the tax whistleblower. If your Twitter is anything at all like mine, your mentions have simply exploded over the last hour or two.

And I’m planning on writing something about it. But it broke as I was getting dinner in kids and kids in bed, and one of the advantages to being in academia rather than legal practice is that when news breaks, I can go to bed and look at it the next day.

There are some fascinating questions here, and I’ll try to address them in a careful, reasoned way. But I’m not going to do it until tomorrow. So until then, have a wonderful night! (And dream of taxes. Or Baby Yoda. I’m cool either way.)

Utah’s New Tax Bill

If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably heard by now that the Utah legislature passed a tax bill last week in a special session. The governor has apparently said he plans to sign the bill.

The bill has been controversial, to say the least. It was even protested by an odd assortment of characters including not only Utah Legislative Watch and Alliance for a Better Utah, but also Santa Claus and the Grinch. A lot of the objections seem to be to process—the bill went from proposed to passed in less than a couple days, and was passed in a special session (though, as a non-Utahn, I don’t actually know what that means). But there has been pushback against the substance, too. A lot of that pushback resonates with me: there have been significant complaints that the changes amount to a more-regressive tax burden on Utahns, with new taxes burdening the poor, while tax cuts redounding to the benefit of the wealthy.  And that, in the words of both of Isaiah and the Twitter feed of the greatest blog in the universe, would be grinding the faces of the poor.

So is that what Utah’s doing? Not entirely, it turns out. [Read more…]

The Evils of the Dole: What Is This “Dole” Thing, Anyway?

Last week, Kristine A wrote an excellent post from last week, highlighting the BYU-I Medicaid omnishambles. In the post, she mentioned that one rumored reason for the policy was to get students “off the dole.”

Now, I’ve been meaning to write about church (and government) welfare for a while, and that comment got me thinking: variously in lesson manuals and other church contexts growing up, I’ve heard about the evils of the dole. But outside of church contexts, I can’t say I’ve heard the word “dole” very often.[fn1]

Originally, I had a long, comprehensive post vaguely mapped out in my head. But it turns out this is the holiday season, and also the writing-and-grading-finals season, so in place of the comprehensive exegesis of church welfare, I’m going to look at use of the word dole. [Read more…]

The Salt Lake Tribune is Officially a Public Charity!

Photo by Cool Hand Luke [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning, the Salt Lake Tribune announced that the IRS had granted it tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) public charity.[fn1] And, while it’s not the first tax-exempt news organization, it says that it’s the first legacy newsroom that’s transformed from for-profit to nonprofit.[fn2]

This doesn’t come entirely as a surprise: six months ago, it announced its intention to become a nonprofit/tax-exempt organization, and I wrote an Explainer about it. So now that it’s real, what does that mean for the Tribune?

I don’t think we know yet. The paper hasn’t announced what changes it plans to make, if any. I stand by everything I wrote last time I wrote about this, but I’ll add a couple things now that it’s real. [Read more…]

Amish at the ABA Tax Section Meeting

On Friday, I was at the ABA Tax Section meeting in San Francisco. Patrick Thomas had invited me to speak on a panel entitled “The IRS Violated My Client’s Religious Liberties: When is This Unlawful and What Can We Do About It?” And, although the panel focused specifically on the Amish, its subject matter is relevant to Mormons’ interest in religious freedom, in immigrant rights, and in what it means to live as a religious individual in a secular society.

Some background before I get into the specifics of our panel. First, it turns out that talking about “the Amish” as if it described a single, unified group is misleading. There are, I’ve been told, at least 40 different Amish groups, each of which differs at least a little in its beliefs and practices. Generally speaking, though, the Amish don’t believe in insurance (government-provided or otherwise). It interferes with the familial and community support they believe the Bible demands of them, and which they value, and it demonstrates a lack of trust in God.

As a result, the Amish have largely been exempted from paying Social Security taxes. That exemption also prevents them from collecting Social Security when they would otherwise qualify, of course. (To claim and memorialize that exemption, they have to sign a Form 4029 which, through a complicated procedure, is also signed by their bishop and has to be processed both by the IRS and the Social Security Administration. Apparently, they generally sign the Form 4029 when they’re baptized, which happens in their late teens or early 20s.) [Read more…]

Russian Taxes: A Bleg

Readers know that I’m interested in basically anything that has to do with the church and taxation. And the other day, I was looking at the Church History Library catalog and came across some fascinating snippets about Russian taxes on U.S. missions.

One comes from the Russia Samara Mission, between 1998 and 2001. The catalog summary includes this: “mission’s troubles with Russian tax authorities and KGB regarding financial matters; attempt to register Church in Kazan (15 August 1998.”

The second entry is for journals of a CES missionary in the Russia Rostov na Donu Mission. It includes this entry: “information about Russian tax system and hardship it caused missionaries renting apartments in Russia (22 October 2002).” [Read more…]

On Satan’s Plan, Tax Edition

A couple days ago, I got a message from a friend, asking how I respond to people who claim that taxes are Satan’s plan. Honestly, my instinct would be to respond, “That’s stupid,” block the person on Twitter, and get on with my life.

But that doesn’t work in every circumstance. I mean, if your interlocutor is standing in the checkout line next to you, blocking isn’t really an issue. And if your interlocutor is, I don’t know, your father-in-law, calling him stupid may not be the optimal approach. (And honestly, if the person is speaking in good faith, dismissing them like that is rude and unfair.[fn1])

So how would I address a good faith assertion that taxation is Satan’s plan? Depending on the person, I’d probably take one of a couple routes: [Read more…]

Heatwave!

Saturday I biked over to Dusty Groove, a local record store. Why? Because Dusty Groove was having its once-in-an-occasional record sale, with dozens of boxes of records ($1 each!) on its third floor.[fn1] I decided to bike rather than drive because it’s only like a mile and a half from my home and there’s limited street parking around the store. (It turned out to be a smart choice: there were dozens and dozens of people digging through cardboard boxes filled with records, all of whom had gotten there somehow.

Beyond the thousands of $1 records for sale, the store was giving out water to patrons. Why? Because Chicago, like much of the US, was in the middle of a massive heatwave. [Read more…]

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) [Read more…]

King Brigham! (Also, Dogs)

A couple taxable nuisances. Photo by ipet photo on Unsplash

Last week, for various reasons that involve research and things, I fell down the rabbit hole of nineteenth-century dog taxes in the U.S. I looked through tons of archival newspapers to see why U.S. cities and states imposed taxes on the ownership of dogs. (Short answer: nineteenth-century Americans often—though not always—considered dogs nuisances. In a lot of cases, the justification was that dogs attacked farmers’ sheep; sometimes it was the risk of rabies (“hydrophobia”). In any event, people believed that a tax on dogs, by raising the price, would reduce the number of dogs in the town.)

In my initial Googling, I learned that the Bloomington, IL, Pantagraph was particularly anti-dog. So I decided to take a look at its dog-related articles. Imagine my surprise when, in the April 1, 1857, edition, I saw an article on Utah. It read: [Read more…]

Civic Process Specialists: Some Thoughts

A couple weeks ago, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the church told Utah stake presidents to start calling “specialists who can assist church members to better understand and participate in the civic process.” Over the weekend, I listened to Ep. 82 of the Trib‘s “Mormon Land” podcast, which discussed this calling with the Hinckley Institute’s Morgan Lyon Cotti. That discussion was an excellent and substantive discussion of why the church might be interested in doing this, and the benefits of additional civic engagement.

At this point, it’s not clear precisely what being a civic process specialist will entail, though, among other things, they might help people figure out how to register to vote, figure out how, when, and where to vote, and, apparently, given them some guidance with Utah’s caucus system. The church has been clear that it will continue to be neutral with respect to candidates and parties. Still, there are people who worry that the specialists will be less nonpartisan than the church. Which brings up the question: can the church do this, or is it going to lose its tax exemption?

Spoiler alert: it’s not going to lose its exemption. [Read more…]

#BCCSundaySchool2019: “The Son of Man Shall Come”

Readings

Joseph Smith-Matthew 1; Matthew 25; Mark 12-13; Luke 21.

A Preliminary Note

I’ve tried to provide some context and some analysis of a couple aspects of the reading for this week. I haven’t even feinted toward most of it, but I think it would be virtually inexcusable to teach this lesson without addressing the widow’s donation of her two coins. I’ll confess that the parable of the ten virgins still confounds me. And it would be absolutely crazy to teach this lesson without referring to Cake.

It’s a Trap!

In Mark 12, two (or three) (but probably two) groups of people try to trap Jesus. How does he avoid these traps? [Read more…]

Who Wears a Bow Tie? A Completely Unscientific Internet Poll.

Hey! Its me! In a bow tie!

For Father’s Day about two years ago, my wife and kids gave me a couple bow ties.

I proceeded to not wear them for several months, largely because I never remembered during the week to learn to tie a bow tie and, in the rush of getting my family getting itself ready to go to church, I never had time Sunday mornings. Eventually, though, I learned to tie a bow tie (thanks internet!). From there, well, it’s not like I’ve never gone back—I have a great collection of neckties, and I enjoy wearing them occasionally—but more often than not, I choose one of my bow ties.[fn1]

Growing up, I’m almost entirely sure I never saw anybody at church wearing a bow tie.[fn2] Similarly, I never saw it at BYU or for the several years I lived in New York. [Read more…]

Explainer: Tax-Exempt Salt Lake Tribune

Yesterday, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Salt Lake Tribune has been in serious discussions about becoming a tax-exempt newspaper.[fn1]

This is kind of a big deal. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first tax-exempt newsroom, of course. NPR, for example, has been delivering news as a tax-exempt organization since 1971. And it’s not even the first newspaper (-like organization): ProPublica, a tax-exempt investigative newsroom, has been tax-exempt for more than a decade, and Voice of San Diego, which does the same type of investigative journalism in the San Diego region, has been exempt since 2005.[fn2] WNYC’s On the Media was talking about the potential of newspapers become tax-exempt around that same time, too.[fn3]

But if this happens, the Trib would become the first legacy newspaper to switch from a for-profit model to a tax-exempt, not-for-profit model. Which raises at least two significant questions: why and how. So let’s do an Explainer! [Read more…]

The Satanic Temple: Now a Church!

Maybe you heard (or maybe you didn’t): the IRS recently recognized the Satanic Temple as a tax-exempt church.

Before you react to the news, that first sentence requires some unpacking. Specifically, we need to know what the Satanic Temple is, and we need to know what it means to be recognized as a tax-exempt church.

To the extent you’ve heard of the Satanic Temple, it’s likely in one of two contexts. They both have to do with its Baphomet statues. [Read more…]

#taxday 2019: Henry P. Richards and Hawaiian Personal Taxes

 

Henry P. Richards, public domain.

Today is April 15, which means it’s Tax Day! And, as always, on Tax Day, I wanted to bring you a story of Mormonism and taxes.[fn1]

I didn’t have anything particular in mind, though.[fn2] So I ran a quick Westlaw search,[fn3] and, before I had a chance to rearrange the results chronologically, the first result caught my eye: Kupua v. Richards, an 1879 decision from the Supreme Court of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

The Richards in that case was Henry P. Richards, brother of apostle Franklin D. Richards. But, while today we remember Franklin D. better than Henry P., it turns out that Henry P. Richards played a critical (and heralded!) role in missionary work in Hawaii. [Read more…]

Come Listen to a Blogger’s Voice (About Taxes and Religion and Stuff)

On Friday, I sat down in a law school conference room with two of my students. They’d set up a pretty impressive array of microphones and mixers and a laptop, and pushed aside the Redweld folders that, for some reason, took up half of the table. These students started Dialogue, De Novo, a podcast that centers around the Loyola University Chicago School of Law community. [Read more…]

The Parsonage Allowance is a Go

Old Dutch Parsonage, Sommerville, NJ. By Zeete. CC BY-SA 4.0

On October 24, 2018, the Seventh Circuit heard an appeal in Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the parsonage allowance case. I’ve written several times about this case over the last six or so years (some links in this post), and I checked the Seventh Circuit’s website for the decision incessantly.

And eventually, it released its opinion. Two and a half weeks ago. I’ve been meaning to blog about it, but haven’t had time to do it justice. And I still haven’t, but wanted to at least flag its conclusion and suggest where it may go from here. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll have time to really engage the opinion here.

A quick summary/reminder: the case dealt with the constitutionality of section 107(2) of the Internal Revenue Code. Section 107(2) says that a “minister of the gospel” can exclude from gross income (and thus not pay taxes on) a housing allowance paid by his or her employer. In essence, it represents a religion-specific exception to the general rule that amounts an employee receives from her employer constitute income subject to tax.[fn1] [Read more…]

New Zealand, Missionaries, and Inland Revenue

Effective January 1, 1991, the church equalized the cost of missionary service. Before, a missionary had to pay the actual costs of his or her mission.[fn1] Now, a missionary pays a set amount to the church, and the church pays the costs of missionaries’ missions irrespective of where they go.

Why did the church make this change? A bunch of reasons, I suspect, but one was because of the tax law. I’ve blogged about Davis v. United States before, and I have a chapter in my book that goes into extensive detail about both the litigation and the thinking behind the case. The short of it, though, is that the Supreme Court held that payments from parents to their missionary children did not qualify for the charitable deduction. Donations from parents to a church-controlled fund (at least, as long as those payments weren’t earmarked particularly for their children) did qualify.

Almost thirty years after the Supreme Court decided Davis, the question of the deductibility of missionary payments is back. Kind of. [Read more…]

Happy Pączki Day!

Today is Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras). Today marks the last day of the Carnival season and the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off Lent.

Unfortunately, in Mormonism, we don’t really do any of those things. In part, I suspect that it’s because of their Catholic roots, and the fact that Catholics were basically non-existent in the milieu from which Mormonism emerged. Or maybe it’s because of our impoverished liturgical calendar. Or maybe it’s because we hate costumes, masks and parties. Whatever the reason, though, there is no distinctive Mormon Fat Tuesday celebration.

Which is why my family and I have whole-heartedly adopted Chicago’s version of Fat Tuesday: Pączki Day.[fn1] [Read more…]

#MutualNight: Lomax, Smith, and Black History Month

(Quick reminder: if you’re curious why I’m writing about music on a Mormon blog, this post will summarize what #MutualNight posts are.)

Confession: I’ve been putting off writing this post for a long time now. But as Black History Month ends tomorrow, I’m at kind of a deadline. Because there are two recent music releases that are ambitious, virtuosic, and critically important, while, at the same time, they’re intensely listenable. And I want to do them justice, but I just can’t. Still, I’m going to try.

400: An Afrikan Epic

In early January, my family and I spent a few days in New Orleans. As we were headed home, we stopped by the Whitney Plantation. Touring the Whitney Plantation is an incredible experience, because it’s focused almost exclusively on the experiences of the enslaved persons who lived and worked there. It has several monuments, monuments listing the names and origins of the enslaved persons, monuments to the enslaved children on the plantation, sculptures and statues memorializing those who were enslaved. In fact, unlike any other plantation tour I’ve been on, the big house was an afterthought—we went in it for literally the last three or four minutes of an hour-and-a-half tour. [Read more…]

Explainer: Utah Stealthily Raised State Income Taxes

This morning, I woke up to this Twitter notification. (Turns out that Sheldon does really know me: this was #BrunsonBait in basically its purest form.) I immediately knew I was going to write a BCC explainer, and I figured it would be a quick and easy explainer: Utah’s tax conformity to the federal income tax meant that, when the TCJA reduced personal exemptions to $0, Utah’s personal exemptions fell to the same rate.

It turns out the story is more complicated than a story of the inadvertent loss of a tax benefit: Utah legislators did this deliberately.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. What’s the this that is happening to Utah taxpayers? In short, according to the article, the elimination of personal exemptions meant that Utahns, with their larger-than-average family size, would face a higher tax bill in 2018 than they would have without the federal TCJA.
[Read more…]