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…]

Money and the Kingdom of God

Last week, I was involved in a Twitter discussion that at least implicated questions of economics, government spending, and private spending. A couple of the interlocutors seemed to be arguing under two assumptions: (1) there are only two economic systems, capitalism and socialism, and (2) there’s something quasi-divine about capitalism, and unrestrained capitalism is the only moral or effective economic system.

Now, this post’s purpose isn’t to argue the first of those two points.[fn1] I do, however, want to suggest that we, as Mormons, need to think much more carefully about money than we usually do.

If my experience at church is at all representative, when we talk about money at church, we talk about two things. The first is paying tithing and offerings, and the second is avoiding debt. Online, the discussion usually devolves into the benefits or the evils of capitalism. [Read more…]

Can the Ecclesiastical Endorsement Process Be Fixed?

Over the weekend, a Salt Lake Tribune article highlighted an enormous problem at the BYUs: the annual ecclesiastical endorsement process means that bishops can circumvent the amnesty clause that BYU added to its sexual misconduct policy.[fn1]

And why is that bad? Richelle Wilson gave us an excellent explanation of the problems with weaponizing the ecclesiastical endorsement process, and Angela C. explained clearly some of the dangers of a view of sin that leads to disregarding others’ welfare. So is it bad that a bishop can get a student expelled for something the Honor Code Office explicitly wouldn’t? Absolutely; Richelle and Angela have made an airtight moral and ethical case for it. And I would add, as a policy matter, that it is bad, too. BYU has made the explicit decision that encouraging students to report sexual assault is more important than disciplining them for breaking the Honor Code. This “loophole” will chill the reporting that BYU wants (rightly) to encourage.

So what can BYU do about it? The short answer is, I have no idea. But the longer answer is, I have several ideas. [Read more…]

The Loveloud Foundation

According to my Facebook feed, Saturday was the Loveloud Festival in Salt Lake. Now in its second year, Loveloud is meant to provide love and acceptance for LGBTQ+ kids. If you’ve followed my #MutualNight posts, you can probably guess that, even if I lived in Utah, I wouldn’t have gone. I’m 100% behind the festival’s message and its goals, but I’m not a big fan of its music.

I am, however, a big fan of charitable organizations. And guess what? The sponsoring organization of the festival is the Loveloud Foundation, a tax-exempt public charity.[fn1]

Now I don’t know a lot of details about the Loveloud Foundation; it received its tax exemption last year, and hasn’t filed a Form 990 yet. (Next year it will file the form, which is a public document.) But there are a couple broad things that we know about it just by virtue of its being tax-exempt. So let’s have a Q&A explainer! [Read more…]

Study Bible Bleg

I’m going to be quick here: after years with an iPhone, I’ve switched to an Android phone. That switch came with one unexpected loss: the Lumina app.

The Lumina app is great. Not only does it have the text of the NET Bible, but it has the notes from the study Bible. And it is free.  [Read more…]

Tithing and Coercion

A number of comments on my post yesterday talked about the coercive nature of tithing. I thought I’d follow up on that idea in a new post, with two principal thoughts.

A History of Tithing and Coercion

The idea that tithing is coercive has a long and storied history. It may well predate 1870, but I know it goes back at least that far. I give more details about it on p. 139 of this paper, but the short of it is, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was trying to tax the church on its 1868 tithing revenue. One of the church’s assertions for why tithing was not taxable was that tithing represented a voluntary contribution by members. [Read more…]

$32 Billion?!?

On Wednesday, MormonLeaks announced that they had connected the church to $32 billion in U.S. stock market investments. [KUTV story.] And how did it figure this out? Ingeniously, actually: it looked at the Form 13Fs for thirteen LLCs to see their stock holdings, and it discovered that domain names matching the LLCs’ names were registered to Intellectual Reserve, Inc., which holds the church’s intellectual property.

So, should you be outraged that the church has at least $32 billion in the stock market? I mean, sure, if you’re a fan of being outraged by stories of religions having money (though frankly, if that’s what you’re in the mood for, maybe this is a better source of outrage). But it’s probably worth taking a minute to figure out what we do and don’t know before going full-throated outraged. [Read more…]

Immigration and the Twelfth Article of Faith

In the last couple days, an apparently Mormon Twitter user claimed to have reported someone in his ward to ICE, which started deportation proceedings against the family. I’m dubious of the claim, frankly: this person has a history of acting as trollishly as possible to get reactions. (And, for that reason, I’m not going to name him or link to his tweets—if you really want to see it, it’s not hard to find.)

However, in the last couple of days, we at BCC have verified instances where Mormons have called ICE on their ward members. I assume they claim they’re doing it because of the Twelfth Article of Faith, and especially that part that says that we believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Upfront: those people are lying. They’re calling ICE because they’re racists, xenophobes, or otherwise un-Christian-like.[fn1] [Read more…]

The Church Is Dropping Boy Scouts and Personal Progress. Now What?

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you’ve heard that yesterday the church announced that it’s cutting ties with Boy Scouts, effective December 31, 2019. It’s also going to drop Personal Progress for girls, effective the same time (as far as I can tell). Most of the commentary I’ve seen is cheering this decision as a great move.

And I think I agree, though perhaps not for the same reasons many are cheering. [Read more…]

What’s the Buzz? #LyricJCS

Full disclosure: my history with Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty thin. The first time I remember experiencing it was after my wife and I got married, and she got a DVD of the 1973 film version.[fn1]

The second time was this last Easter on NBC.

The third time was Saturday at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. (Spoiler alert: if you’re in or near Chicago, or will be on or before May 20, get tickets to this show. Right now.) [Read more…]

Book Announcement: God and the IRS

I’m thrilled to announce that my book God and the IRS: Accommodating Religious Practice in United States Tax Law (New York: Cambridge UP, 2018) has just been published and is available for your reading pleasure.

As background to the book, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment (as well as the jurisprudence courts have used to interpret and apply the Religion Clauses) have a sometimes-complicated interplay. Because the law sometimes imposes on individuals’ ability to practice their religion, the government can sometimes accommodate their religious practice, exempting religious individuals from generally-applicable laws. At the same time, though, in general, the law can’t favor religion over non-religion; as a result, sometimes religious people can’t get an exemption from the generally-applicable law. A lot of religious litigation turns on where, in a given situation, the line between permissible and impermissible accommodation falls. [Read more…]

#TaxDay 2018: For Ye Were Strangers

The foreigner who resides with you must be to you like a native citizen among you; so you must love him as yourself, because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.   —Leviticus 19:34

My liturgical calendar tells me today is Tax Day,[fn1] and so it’s time for another installment of my annual Mormons and Taxes post.

This year’s has nothing to do with the income tax, and, in fact, very little to do with the United States. Instead, we’re going to look south of the border to the Mormon colonies in Mexico. [Read more…]

Taxsplainer: How the Utah Legislature Is Raising Taxes By Doing Nothing

The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that the Utah legislature has just enacted a large tax increase on many Utah families, in spite of its putative 0.05 percentage-point tax cut. How can that be? [Read more…]

On Kirton McConkie’s (Lack of) Women Shareholders

The other night, I was listening to the most recent Slate Money podcast. In its second segment, the hosts talked about the recent gender pay report in the United Kingdom. They specifically mentioned about Goldman Sachs and Condé Nast, both of which, it turns out, have a pretty sizeable gender pay difference.[fn1]

There are undoubtedly many reasons why men’s income was significantly higher than women’s, but the podcast highlighted one in particular: high earners. At Goldman, women make up only 17% of the top quartile by income. At Condé Nast, there are more women at every income quartile, but it appears that incomes are skewed by the top 5%; in fact, the five-person executive committee is entirely men. [Read more…]

Why Mormons Should Root For the Ramblers in the NCAA Tournament

So there are four teams left: Kansas, Villanova, Michigan, and Loyola University Chicago. And as Mormons, you should probably be cheering for Loyola this weekend. Why? Let me count the reasons:

Your team’s out anyway

I mean, unless you’re a fan of Kansas, Villanova, or Michigan, in which case I assume you’ll be rooting against Loyola (though you can still cheer for the Ramblers!). But there are no Mormon-adjacent schools left. BYU? Never been to the Final Four. (In fact, it holds the kind of depressing record for most trips to the tournament without making the Final Four.) [Read more…]