The Church, the State (of Utah), and Welfare

On Thursday, ProPublica and the Salt Lake Tribune published a fascinating article detailing a link between Utah, the church, and welfare payments. I assume most readers here have already read it. If not, you really need to read it. Maybe before reading this post but, if not before, definitely right after.

The tl;dr of the article is this: since about 2009, Utah has underspent on its social safety net. Also, based on an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) it signed with the church, it has counted volunteer hours performed for the church in calculating how much it has spent.

Reading the article the first time, though, left me with questions. And it turns out I’m not the only one who didn’t entirely understand what was going on: on Friday, the Editorial Board of the Tribune published an unsigned op-ed, the heart of which were these three paragraphs:

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Religion and Abortion

As I type this post, the Supreme Court is listening to arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In that case, JWHO is challenging a Mississippi law that bans [updated] most abortions in the state after fifteen weeks of gestation (with no exception for rape or incest). Mississippi, on the other hand, is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade (and,, in fact, appears to have passed its law precisely because it thought the Supreme Court would do so).

There’s a popular narrative in the U.S. that there is a single religious view on abortion: that it’s wrong and should be banned. But that view is both overly-simplistic and wrong. There is an enormous range of religious views on abortion. On the one hand, Catholicism opposes abortion, along with capital punishment and the death penalty, as part of its dedication to the sanctity of human life.

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Vaccines Approved for 5-11-Year-Olds in the U.S.

Last Friday, the FDA authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccines for children ages 5-11. Then, Tuesday night, the CDC recommended the vaccine for children.

Unfortunately, that approval happened simultaneously with a bunch of closely-watched elections. Wednesday morning, most news sites did mention the vaccine’s approval, but those stories were buried underneath breathless election stories. I found them but I only found them because I actively looked for them.

So just so our U.S. readers don’t miss the news: if you have a child five years old or older, your child can now get vaccinated against Covid!

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“Severe, Pervasive, and Objectively Offensive Race-Based Harassment”

Photo by Rolande PG on Unsplash

Yesterday the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the end of a Department of Justice investigation into the Davis School District in Utah. And frankly, its findings were disgusting. You can (and should) read the DOJ’s report here, but in summary, but in summary, the DOJ found “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment” in Davis schools by students and staff. A taste of the kinds of harassment Black students had to deal with: white students called them

monkeys or apes and said that their skin was dirty or looked like feces. Peers taunted Black students by making monkey noises at them, touching and pulling their hair without permission, repeatedly referencing slavery and lynching, and telling Black students “go pick cotton” and “you are my slave.” Harassment related to slavery increased when schools taught the subject, which some Black students felt was not taught in a respectful or considerate manner. White and other non-Black students demanded that Black students give them an “N-Word Pass,” which non-Black students claimed gave them permission to use the n-word with impunity, including to and around Black students. If Black students resisted these demands, they were sometimes threatened or physically assaulted.

(Note that the report also discusses anti-Asian discrimination.)

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Do Church Members Have a Scriptural Obligation to Revere Christopher Columbus?

That’s quite the lengthy post title, right? Fortunately, the answer is far more succinct:

No.

Of course, I can elaborate too. I base that no on two considerations. First, there’s no textual reason to believe that Nephi sees Columbus in the vision he recounts in 1 Ne. 13. Second, whether it refers to Columbus or not (and see point 1), it doesn’t say anything about the person being an exemplar or in any way worth of our respect, emulation, or celebration.

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Mitt Romney, the Expanded EITC and Marriage Penalties

On Thursday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney sent a letter, signed by him and 34 of his Republican colleagues, to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden. In the letter, he objects to marriage penalties built into the House’s reconciliation bill, marriage penalties, he claims, that are exacerbated by the changes made to the earned income tax credit (the “EITC”). He concludes his letter saying, “We believe that marriage is a vital social good. It is misguided and unfair for the government to build bigger barriers for couples to marry.”So is Sen. Romney right? Does the reconciliation bill (available here) increase marriage penalties and disincentivize marriage?

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James Huntsman Lawsuit Dismissed

A quick follow-up to one of my previous posts: a federal judge dismissed James Huntsman’s fraud lawsuit against the church on Friday.

This may not have been an absolutely forgone conclusion, but it comes pretty close to one. Remember, Huntsman was suing to get his tithing money back from the church. That’s a tough ask in the first place because, other than conditional gifts, US law treats charitable donations as belonging to the recipient. Just because you later regret having made the donation doesn’t mean you can rescind it.

So Huntsman alleged that the church had fraudulently induced him to pay tithing. He relied, he said, on several statements from the church that it did not using tithing money to build City Creek when, in fact, it did use tithing money to build City Creek.

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On “Hot Drinks”

I suspect that we’ll never find a definitive explanation of how the proscribed “hot drinks” in D&C 89 came to be interpreted by the church as referring purely and solely to tea and coffee. Today, of course, that is the church’s official interpretation of what “hot drinks” means, but early in the history of the D&C that wasn’t entirely obvious.

In fact, in January 1838—almost five years after Joseph’s receipt of the revelation—prominent members of the church on the high council disagreed about whether the Word of Wisdom’s invocation of “hot drinks” referred to tea and coffee. During a high council meeting, W.W. Phelps said he had not broken the Word of Wisdom. Oliver Cowdery, by contrast, said he had drunk tea three times a day during the winter as a result of his poor health. David and John Whitmer piped in that they didn’t drink tea or coffee, but also that they didn’t consider either to be hot drinks as referred to in Joseph’s revelation.

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The Texas Abortion Ban and the Death of Constitutional Rights

Got your attention? Great!

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Supreme Court didn’t stop a Texas law that bans abortions performed by Texas physicians after six weeks from going into effect.

The Texas law is clearly unconstitutional. Whether or not you think the right to abortion should be a constitutional right, there is no question under Supreme Court jurisprudence that it is. And the Supreme Court has never allowed a six-week abortion ban to go into effect before, even temporarily.

So what’s different about this Texas ban? Enforcement. Usually statutes that prohibit abortion are enforced by the state government. That means that procedurally, pre-enforcement challenges are straightforward: you sue the government, which would enforce the law, and your case works its way through the court system. If the courts think you have a reasonable chance of winning, they can issue an injunction, preventing the law from going into effect until there has been a full hearing.

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I Want It Back

There are two recent lawsuits filed against the LDS church that are worth taking a look at. Both lawsuits demand that the church return donations to the donor (or the donor’s heirs).

And both face a major impediment: as a general rule, if you make a charitable donation, you can’t get that donation back. And that’s the case even if the you have a falling out with the charitable organization. In fact, that’s the case even if the charitable organization uses your gift in a way that you, personally, find offensive. (In that case, you can certainly stop making charitable donations in the future, of course. But you don’t get your prior donations back.)

There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. And the plaintiffs in the two cases try to get around the rule by using two different exceptions.

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Let’s Talk About Money

I don’t have any idea if $100 billion is a good amount for the church to have in its endowment. Personally, I tend to think, given its revenue and expenditures, that the number is high. At least as long as it continues to bring in a significant amount of tithing annually, it feels to me like it doesn’t need a cushion quite that big.

But the thing is, I don’t know. Church leaders are completely opaque in how they’ve made their investment/spending decisions. And to be honest, I suspect that it has been a decision only in the loosest sense. Inertia is a powerful force and decisions made 20 years ago carry a lot of weight.

But arguably the church should communicate its financial thinking better. And I don’t mean that the church needs to tell members exactly how much it has in assets (though it certainly could). But I believe that if the church viewed members as stakeholders, it could and would communicate its thinking to us. What considerations has it made in deciding whether to spend or invest? How did it decide how much it needed for current expenditures and for future expenditures.

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Masks and the First Amendment

Photo by Kyle Austin on Unsplash

Effective today, the city of Chicago has reinstituted an indoor mask mandate. And we’re not alone: Washington state and Washington, D.C. have them. Dallas appears to have one. Benton County in Oregon has one. And I’m sure there are others and, in light of the Delta variant and the U.S.’s not-so-impressive vaccinate rate, there will be others.

A week ago, the First Presidency sent a letter to all members of the church encouraging us to get vaccinated and wear masks at indoor meetings where we couldn’t social distance.

What does this mean for our church meetings? Well, in light of the First Presidency’s guidance, I would have thought it would be uncontroversial: we’ll return to requiring masks in our meetings, at least in places that have implemented mask mandates.

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Regrading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Or maybe: awarding the Church’s pandemic response some extra credit.

Last week I wrote that the church had done a poor job encouraging members to get vaccinated against Covid. While leaders had shared posts of themselves getting vaccinated and had put out language encouraging vaccination broadly, it had not been as direct as it is capable of being.

But I’m always happy to offer extra credit to bring a struggling grade up and today the church has earned some extra credit. In a message sent to members around the world[fn1] and posted on the Newsroom website, the First Presidency “urge[s]” members to get vaccinated against Covid, pointing out that the vaccines “have proven to be both safe and effective.”

And it goes further: it also urges the use of face masks in public meetings where members can’t distance.

Now it’s on members; the church leadership has made a clear and unequivocal statement that it takes Covid seriously and that, through vaccination and mask-wearing, we can beat Covid back. Will we respond to their clear guidance?

I certainly hope so.


[fn1] It hasn’t hit my inbox yet, but I trust that, at the very least, it’ll be there soon.

Grading the Church’s Pandemic Response

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about how the church has responded to it. And [deeply fatherly voice]: I’m so disappointed.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course. The church started out great, cancelling all church meetings at the front end of when we (in the U.S., anyway) realized this was a serious problem. But since then, it hasn’t done a lot to deal with this unprecedented (in recent memory, anyway) worldwide issue.

There are two main areas that really stoke my fatherly disappointment: vaccines and the return to the status quo.

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HIPAA and the Church

Just to be clear, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”)[fn1] does not prevent your bishop from asking you about your vaccination status. It doesn’t prevent your ward from doing contact tracing and informing people who attended church that someone had Covid at a meeting you attended. It doesn’t prevent the ward from asking (or requiring) attendees to wear masks.[fn2]

And look, I guess it’s fair to be a little scared. HIPAA does provide that a “person who knowingly and in violation of this part … discloses individually identifiable health information to another person[] shall be punished” with fines and potential imprisonment.

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The Child Tax Credit and You

The American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden in March, includes a lot of things. For many U.S. readers of this blog, perhaps the most notable and salient is that it increased the child tax credit and, starting next month, will send monthly checks for a portion of the credit to taxpayers.

I wrote about the details over on the Surly Subgroup, but wanted to highlight a couple things about it for a specifically Mormon audience. It isn’t, of course, particular to Mormons but, falling birthrates[fn1] notwithstanding, we still tend to have (marginally) more children than the average American. Which means that the child tax credit, and its prepayment, are going to be relevant to many of us.

Of course, to understand what’s going on, we need to answer a couple questions.

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Believing in the Big Lie

Almost exactly a month ago, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey looking at partisan and religious belief in the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

To be clear, the assertion that the election was stolen is stupid. The only basis for the assertion is that people can formulate the concept in a (grammatically) coherent way. Donald Trump’s attorneys had dozens of opportunities to assert that there was something illegal about the election in court but were unable to convince judges of any political persuasion. State Attorneys General support the fairness of the election. The Big Lie is, precisely, a lie.

And who believes it? According to the PRRI survey, 61% of white Evangelical Christians. But not that far behind them?

Mormons. Forty-six percent of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (in the United States) mostly or completely agree that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

This represents an existential threat to the future of Mormonism.

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About Critical Race Theory

Yesterday morning, my wife came upstairs and told me that NPR had a story about taxes. She also mentioned that it would probably annoy me. (She gets me.) But I decided to turn it on just to see who would be guesting.

One of the guests was Professor Dorothy Brown. Prof. Brown is a friend and a mentor, so I left it on and I’m glad I did. The episode of 1A focused on the racial wealth gap and, to my interests, the place of the federal income tax in causing and exacerbating the wealth gap.

That the tax law treats Black and white taxpayers different isn’t immediately obvious. After all, it’s written in race-neutral language (or, better, it doesn’t mention race at all). And, in fact, it has taken at least two decades of pioneering work by Prof. Brown (and others) to highlight the ways in which the tax law, while facially neutral, has a disparate impact that benefits white taxpayers and harms Black and brown taxpayers.[fn1]

Figuring out ways in which the tax law affects Black taxpayers differently from the ways it affects white taxpayers is no easy task, though. Among other things, the IRS doesn’t collect taxpayers’ races. So Prof. Brown’s research truly requires detective work.

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Two Reflections on Korihor

“And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ.”Alma 30:12

Korihor was the third of three people in the Book of Mormon explicitly designated as an “anti-Christ.” And probably everybody reading this knows the rough outline of Korihor’s life and death: he shows up in Zarahemla about 75 B.C. and preaches that there will be no Christ. The Nephites (we’re told) have no law against a person’s belief but, notwithstanding its putative religious freedom, Korihor eventually ends up on trial in front of Alma, the chief priest of the people, and the chief judge.

Korihor continues to deny the coming Christ, asks for a sign, and is struck dumb. He confesses in writing that he was deceived by the devil, asks that the curse be removed, and Alma declines. Korihor ends up panhandling until he’strampled to death by the Zoramites (themselves a group of religious dissenters). The life and death of Korihor end up being a didactic morality tale, wrapped up comfortably by editor and narrator Mormon.

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Hugh Pinnock, Mark Hofmann, and Taxes

Last week I mentioned that, in anticipation of Murder Among the Mormons I was reading Victims. And I talked about Mark Hofmann’s tax planning.

I’m only a little bit further through the documentary today (I finished the first episode), but I’ve made a bunch of progress on the book. And, reading it last night, another tangential tax issue leaped out at me.

See, it turns out that when Hofmann needed to borrow money from First Interstate Bank, Elder Hugh Pinnock of the Seventy put in a good word for him. Pinnock assumed that Hofmann was a legitimate documents dealer who had a big deal in the works. And the bank apparently assumed that either Pinnock or the church itself was guaranteeing the loan.

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IRS Whistleblowers Revisited

Photo by adil113. CC BY 2.0

Has it really been nearly a year and three months since Lars Nielson released his brother’s whistleblower complaint against the church? What felt like the story that would dominate news of Mormonism in 2020 was quickly buried by Trumpian scandals and then worldwide pandemics.

Like most people, I’ve only thought about the $100 billion endowment fleetingly over the last year or so; I’ve been more wrapped up in translating my job to my home, helping my kids become at-home students, and playing the saxophone.

Monday, though, a court decision came across my desk that made me think of Ensign Peak Advisors and Lars Nielson. See, one reason his brother filed a complaint with the IRS was in hopes of getting a whistleblower award. Statutorily, whistleblowers are entitled to receive between 15 and 30% of the amount the IRS collects as a result of their complaint.

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Mark Hofmann and Taxes

In anticipation of watching Netflix’s Murder Among the Mormons,[fn1] I started rereading Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hofmann Case.[fn2]

And right at the end of chapter two something leapt out at me: in addition to searching for (and forging) rare documents, Hofmann engaged in tax planning! Chapter two discusses Hofmann’s attempts to sell the Anthon Transcript to the church. Initially he asked for a set of six Mormon gold pieces in exchange. Why the gold pieces rather than cash? In part, he said, because he wanted a “tax-free exchange” (Turley, 38). (Note that, after negotiation, the church gave him one five-dollar gold coin plus some historic Mormon notes and a first edition of the Book of Mormon missing its title page.)

Now if you’ve read much of my blogging, you know these three words leapt out at me, a virtual technicolor attention grabber. So what was Hofmann trying to do?

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BYU Religion’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Hiring Policy

The Church Education System has just finalized new hiring standards for the BYUs’ religion departments. The new standards have a laudable purpose: they mean to “strengthen[] the faith and deepen[] the conviction” of students at the BYUs. Unfortunately, the new hiring standards will do just the opposite: they undermine the legitimacy and power of the church.

Before I go into that, though, a couple caveats: first, the document is real. Bruce Hafen referred to it a year and a half ago in an address to BYU’s religion faculty. But it hasn’t been publicly released. The linked PDF is made up of screenshots. But I have been assured by multiple people that I trust that it is real.

Second, yes, it’s dated a year and a half ago. I have similar confirmation from friends that, while it has existed since June 2019, it has just been implemented. Partly that because, in light of the pandemic, there really hasn’t been any hiring in a year and a half. Partly it’s because it took that much time to figure out how to implement it.

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Moroni Visits Joseph Smith

I have to admit, I’m going to be a little sad if this week’s Sunday School lesson doesn’t start with Earth Wind and Fire‘s “September.”

Added bonus: after last night’s scripture study (and subsequent Spotify listen and Just Dance game) my family’s never going to forget the date Moroni came to visit Joseph Smith for the first time.

Prejudice Against Me Among Professors of Religion

Sunday evening, my family and I were reading Joseph Smith–History in a not-quite-too-late bid to keep up with the Sunday School reading. And, although I’ve read the first 26 verses plenty of times before, something whetted my curiosity this time.

See, in v. 19, the Personage tells Joseph that all of the creeds were an abomination and that “those professors were all corrupt.” A few verses later, Joseph talks about how his story “excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion.”

I’d always taken for granted that these professors of religion were religious elites, presumably teachers at seminaries or colleges–the caretakers of institutional religion at the time. After all, that’s kind of how we collectively teach and read these passages. (Don’t believe me? Well, the footnote to “professors” in v. 19 references “False Prophets” in the Topical Guide, which at least implies some degree of authority and religious eliteness.)

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A Musical Celebration of Christmas

I mentioned the other day that my ward had asked me to perform a virtual musical number for our December 20th Zoom sacrament meeting. I chose a saxophone duet of “What Child Is This”:

I also wanted to see your Christmas performances. So if you recorded a special musical number for your sacrament meeting (or, for that matter, if you want to record one for us), please post it in the comments! (Note that sometimes our spam filter holds up YouTube links; I’ll check periodically and release comments.)

If you’re interested in how I recorded this, I’ll put details below the fold. If you’re not (and feel free to not be interested!) click on “Comments” at the top to jump straight to others’ performances.

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Special Musical Numbers, Christmas 2020 Edition

A member of my bishopric asked if I’d do a special musical number for church Sunday.

But given that this is 2020 and we have Zoom church, I’m not performing it live. Rather, I recorded it a couple days ago and will upload it to YouTube for him to play during our sacrament meeting.

I imagine that a lot of you may be in similar circumstances. Which has a really cool side benefit–we can share our musical numbers more broadly than just our wards! In fact, we can share it with the internet at large!

So what I’m thinking is this: on Sunday after church, I’m going to put up a post with a link to my number. I would love it if, in the comments, other people who are performing Christmas music for church also posted their performances. That way, we can all share in the uplifting Christmas spirit!

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On Terryl Givens and Abortion

Yesterday Terryl Givens published what he characterized as “A Latter-day Saint Defense of the Unborn” at Public Square Magazine. He ultimately concludes that Latter-day Saints are obligated to oppose abortion and that there is basically no room for personally opposing abortion but supporting its legality and availability.

Givens seems completely sincere in his revulsion for abortion. But that sincerity has led him to pen (type?) a deeply misleading and unchristian jeremiad against his fellow citizens and fellow-Saints who take the opposite tack.

I’m not going to detail all of the factual and legal problems with his piece, though I will highlight a couple of what I consider to be the big problems. I’m also want to point out that the way he’s framed his argument undercuts any assertion that he makes it in good faith and that it demonstrates a huge lack of moral imagination.

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What Gets You Through?

Note: there’s nothing particularly Mormon-y about this post, except that it deals with what one Mormon has done to stay sane during the pandemic.

Back in May, two months or so into the pandemic, I finally did it. Lying in bed at probably one in the morning, I posted on Craigslist:

Need to play in a jazz combo? Me too!

I hadn’t played with other musicians since my freshman year of college (which, I’ll note, was a long time ago). But since stay-at-home started, I’d been practicing my saxophones. More, probably, than I had since my freshman year. And once the pandemic was over (because even in May I though maybe it would end sometime soon), I wanted a chance to play.

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#TrumpTaxReturns on The Surly Subgroup

As far as I know, the only news in the U.S. since Sunday has been the New York Times‘s investigation of leaked Trump tax returns. I certainly know that the first article Sunday evening definitively changed my work schedule for the week.

There’s a lot of information in the article, but there’s also a lot of additional context that tax people can bring to it. I’ve done a bunch of tweeting about the context, and just put my tweets together into a single blog post. (I’ll note that the tweets are better because they are GIF-filled, but the blog post is easier and, as a bonus, links to all of the tweets).

There’s nothing even remotely Mormon-y about this but, to the extent you’re interested in some further content and tax-y goodness, check out the Surly Subgroup.