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…]

The Church Is Going to Pay More In Taxes

In 1972, the church opened its new Church Office Building at 50 East North Temple Street. The 28-story building, built by Christiansen and Clyde Construction Company for $31.3 million, allowed scattered church employees to all work under one roof. Initially, about 1,500 employees, who had been at 16 different locations, moved into the building. It was originally slated to provide office space to over 2,000 employees. And so that those employees could make it, the Church Office Building had 1,250-spot underground parking garage.

And the existence of that 1,250-spot underground parking garage means that the church owes federal income taxes for 2018.

Because yes, the church owes taxes for last year. And, perhaps to church members’ surprise, those taxes aren’t the result of secular liberals who hate Mormons/religion/God. Those taxes are the result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the GOP’s late-2017 tax reform that was both conceived of and passed without any input or votes from Democrats.  [Read more…]

Soon We Can No Longer Meet in Public

About a month ago, during church, I got a text from my wife:

 

 

 

I was curious why they were talking about taxing religious people in Gospel Principles, but figured I could ask her after church.

It turns out, though, that the discussion had nothing to do with taxes; instead, a missionary in our ward had said that we were moving to a two-hour block supplemented by home-centered study in preparation for a not-too-distant future when it would be illegal for us to meet together at church. And my wife explained that no, that wasn’t going to happen.

We laughed about it, but didn’t think too much of it. After all, 18-year-old boys are susceptible to outlandish ideas (I was one, once upon a time). And my wife had countered him, so no harm, no foul. [Read more…]

Call for guest posts: #TeachingPrimaryCFM

Pity the poor Primary teachers.

I mean, the new schedule is good for them in many ways: they only have to keep kids’ attention for 20 minutes, and, at two hours total, the kids will be a lot less exhausted from sitting still.

But, at the same time, the church has introduced a new Primary manual. As in, one. This manual is supposed to be the basis of lessons for 3-year-olds and for 11-year-olds. Now, in theory, that’s not a bad idea. The same concepts can be pitched at different levels.

But in practice? Well, as friend of the blog Mette Harrison points out, it’s not quite so simple.  [Read more…]

A Class Tax: Utah Taxpayers in 1920

The other day, I did a quick search on the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site to see if I could find any information about prominent Utah or Mormon taxpayers.

See, today’s tight privacy of tax return information hasn’t always existed. For a couple of years in the 1920s, Congress required taxpayers to publicly disclose their tax payments; apparently, newspapers had a field day publishing the tax payments (and refunds) of the wealthy and the famous.[fn1] I was curious if Utah newspapers did the same.

But I got distracted on my first hit, from the Lehi Sun. It didn’t release the names of taxpayers, or what they paid, but it did give a snapshot of Utah’s taxpaying from 1916-1920.[fn2] [Read more…]

Building Zion. In Two Hours Per Week.

We’re weeks away from the end of the three-hour block. Implemented in 1980, the three-hour block was, in part, a response to the energy crisis, in part a recognition that as the church expanded, the time it took to get to church (over and over) could potentially be burdensome. And (in reasoning that reflects the current change), it was meant to reemphasize the importance of individual and family gospel study.

Now, I was super-young in 1980; I have vague memories of going to Primary on weekday nights, but, on the other hand, I was young enough that I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what a weekend was, so maybe I’m retroactively imposing memories on the shift. It’s fair to say, though, that I don’t remember what the reaction to the shift was, or how well it met its goals.

And I’m pretty much as happy as anybody about the change. (Okay, not as happy as anybody; my kids are past napping, so three hours doesn’t risk imposing on nap times and making everybody in the house grumpy.)

That said, I see some potential pitfalls in the new, shorter schedule. They’re avoidable, but it will take work to avoid them, so we need to recognize them. [Read more…]

My Middle Way Mormonism

Over at Wheat & Tares, a number of bloggers have written takes on what they’re calling “Middle Way Mormonism.”[fn1] Although their takes differ marginally from one another, they’re all fairly complementary. And by and large, I think they represent an interesting, and important, take on Mormonism, and one that I want to engage with.

Though they don’t lay out a precise definition of Middle Way Mormonism, the contours seem to be something like this: a Middle Way Mormon is a member who recognizes fallibility and institutional weakness in the church, but stays in the church. And, if that’s roughly what they’re talking about, I’m clearly a Middle Way Mormon. (Also, so are you. And so it your rabid Mormon uncle, with the anti-government takes and the bunker filled with MREs. More on that in a minute.)

The W&T bloggers largely see (in their experience and the experiences of their loved ones) Middle Way Mormonism being triggered by some traumatic episode—a discovery about something in church history or practice, something that brings with it pain and disillusionment. That traumatic episode leads, almost inevitably, to a changed relationship to the church. That changed relationship may result in an temporary or permanent equilibrium, but that equilibrium risks being difficult and uncomfortable to maintain. (FWIW, these are all my words and takes on their excellent posts, and I hope the W&T bloggers will forgive me if I’ve flattened some of the nuance, or misinterpreted some of the assertions, in their posts.) [Read more…]

Two Quick Things Related to the Freedom From Religion Foundation

A quick announcement, and a quick related link:

I’ve been blogging about the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit challenging the parsonage allowance for several years, both here and at Surly Subgroup (and, at least once, at Times and Seasons). And, a week from Wednesday, the Seventh Circuit is going to hear oral arguments in the case. Right here in Chicago! Which means you know where I’ll be Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 9:30 am.

And, in anticipation of the case, Professor Anthony Kreis and I are going to do a preview of the case. This Wednesday at noon, here at the Loyola University Chicago law school. If you’re in the Chicagoland area, please feel free to come. The discussion will be great, and there’ll be pizza! (If you’re interested in coming, I’m attaching the official announcement at the bottom of this post; please RSVP here so we have a rough count of how much pizza to order.) [Read more…]

Mormon Obedience: On Disregarding the Prophet’s Preferences

On Sunday morning, President Nelson dedicated his full full talk to shutting down the use of Mormon and other nicknames for the church. This seems to be something he feels passionate about, and something that has been weighing on his mind for a long time. He went so far as to assert that Jesus is offended if we use, or allow others to use, nicknames for the church, and at least intimates that the use of nicknames represents both a victory for Satan and disregard for the Atonement.

So what are we, as faithful members of the church, to do with this? We absolutely have to take it seriously.

But that raises the question of what taking it seriously means. And I believe that this is a tougher question that it appears at first blush. Because taking it seriously isn’t (necessarily) the same as obeying. To take it seriously requires that we engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with what Pres. Nelson has said. [Read more…]

When Religious Tax Accommodations Are Inconsistent

On Wednesday, October 24, the Seventh Circuit is going to hear arguments in the appeal of Gaylor v. Mnuchin. I’ve written about this parsonage allowance case a number of times in the past (see here and here for examples), but as a quick summary: section 107(2) of the Code says that “ministers of the gospel” don’t have to include rental allowances in gross income. Several years ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged this parsonage allowance on the grounds that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. They won in the district court, but the Seventh Circuit found that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to challenge the provision.

The Seventh Circuit also suggested, in a footnote, that if they claimed a parsonage allowance and the IRS rejected their claim, they might have standing. So they did, the IRS did, and the district court again found the provision unconstitutional. And now the Seventh Circuit will weigh in (again).

As a side note, this provision (as well as a bunch of others) made their way into God and the IRS, the book I wrote that was recently published about tax accommodations of religious individuals. The fundamental purpose of the book was to illustrate the ad hoc nature of religious accommodations in the tax law, and develop a framework that could provide some consistency as Congress and the IRS consider providing these accommodations. [Read more…]

Required Training

On Monday, I got an email from HR reminding me that, as part of the school’s Harassment Prevention & Business Skills initiative, I needed to complete an online Sexual Harassment for Employees course.

I did it that same day, largely because if I don’t get to a work email almost immediately, it can slip out of my mind. And I prefer not to forget to do things that are required for my employment.

The training was basically a series of videos essentially aimed at letting us know what constitutes sexual harassment, with the dual purpose of ensuring that (1) if we’re harassed, we understand our rights and what we can and should do about it, and (2) we don’t do things that constitute sexual harassment. After watching the videos, I had to take a short multiple choice quiz to pass the course. All in all, it took something less than half an hour to complete. [Read more…]

Socialism and Satan’s Plan

Via GIPHY

It happened. Again. On Mormon Twitter, someone mentioned socialism, to which somebody responded that socialism was Satan’s plan. (There were a couple other responses I saw that hinted at the same thing, but didn’t explicitly say it. And maybe there were others who said something similar. It’s not like I looked for every response to the tweet.)

To which I reply: that’s not the stupidest assertion based on Mormon theology ever. But it may well be in the top ten. [Read more…]

Marijuana, Mormon Lobbying, and Tax Exemption

Scrolling through Twitter this morning, this tweet caught my eye:

Curious, I looked at the replies and, sure enough, the first three I read had some variation of, “Well, the Mormon church has to lose its tax exemption now, right?”[fn1] After replying to them, I decided that it would probably be easier to write an explainer than to reply to each one individually.

So: has the church risked its exemption by lobbying against the legalization of medical marijuana in Utah? Short answer: no. [Read more…]