Religious Freedom vs. Public Interest (Working Women)

I dissent.

Let me start off by being clear that I am not a lawyer (on a blog with many lawyers). I have multiple decades of experience as a business executive in large corporations, overseeing the employment of thousands of people. As an executive, I understood very well what the applicable anti-discrimination laws were. Now that I’m a small business owner, I also recognize that many of those laws are not required for me, but based on my personal conviction and principles, I still run my business as if they do.

In a 7-2 decision, SCOTUS recently upheld a completely discriminatory ruling to allow employers (that are not directly affiliated with any church) to refuse to cover birth control in their employee healthcare plans. This decision rests firmly on a few shaky foundational assumptions: [Read more…]

Faculty Demographics at BYU

A couple weeks ago, President Nelson issued a joint statement with the NAACP condemning racial injustice. Toward the end of that statement, they said:

We likewise call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.

(Emphasis mine.) It occurred to me that, while at BYU-P, very few of my professors were people of color. (It’s been a couple decades, so my memory isn’t perfect, but as best I can remember, I had two Brazilian professors, which is probably the closest I came.) I wondered what BYU faculty looks like today.

It isn’t pretty.  [Read more…]

On Masks

A couple weeks ago, I was going to write a quick fun post asking whether, in a post-pandemic world, the church would start letting people wear masks to church Halloween parties.[fn1] After all, in the phased resumption of sacrament meeting, members can be encouraged to wear facemasks. And if at sacrament meeting, why not at Halloween?

To write the post, I did a quick Google search to see if the internet had any explanation of the origins of the church’s ban on masks. And you know what? If you Google “mormon no masks,” you get a lot of hits about the church’s mask-making activities and, right at the top, Elder Cook’s 2012 BYUI devotional titled, of all things, “Don’t Wear Masks.” [Read more…]

#JusticeForGeorgeFloyd Revisited

A little more than a week ago, I posted some religious leaders’ reactions to the murder of George Floyd. While the church hadn’t responded when I posted, it responded shortly thereafter, and I update the post to include the church’s response.

Today, Pres. Nelson released a joint statement with the NAACP. The original post has dropped far enough below the fold that I decided it’s worth a new post. As with the other statements, I’m only going to excerpt it. It’s absolutely worth reading the whole thing.

President Russell M. Nelson, president, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO, NAACP; Leon Russell, Chairman, NAACP; and The Reverend Amos C. Brown, Chairman Emeritus of Religious Affairs, NAACP wrote: [Read more…]

Justice for George Floyd [Updated 6-1, 8-20]

I’m sure that you, like me, have seen the shocking murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. That you are aware that this isn’t the first time, the second, or even the third time this type of senseless killing has occurred. You’ve seen the protests demanding justice. Maybe you’ve participated in them.

Religion has things to say about justice, about how we should treat each other, and how we should treat the poor and vulnerable and the stranger. The Book of Mormon is basically 500 pages of God’s chosen people getting it wrong.

So I thought I’d look to see whether religious leaders are speaking out about this moral issue and, if so, what they’re saying. Unsurprisingly, they are speaking out about both our unjust society and the just society that we should aspire to create. The following is a sampling, undoubtedly incomplete but critical nonetheless in this moment of deep sorrow and introspection: [Read more…]

Sheep and Goats in a Pandemic

Sheep and goats in corrals. The Field Museum Library. No know copyright restrictions.

Yesterday my family and I took a bike ride to downtown Chicago. (Under Illinois’s stay-at-home order, biking for outdoor activity is an essential activity.)

It was stunning, in this usually-vibrant city, how empty the streets were. We passed a handful of people out for exercise, air, or to walk their dogs. The buses we passed, which should have been full to overflowing at rush hour, held a driver and one or two other people. The storefront businesses were dark, as billboards and electronic signs at bus stops reminded Chicagoans to stay home to avoid spreading Covid-19.

It occurred to me on that ride how hard it is to be truly Christian during a pandemic like this one. Not hard because our hearts are in the wrong place—I believe that everybody who’s sacrificing to protect the health and lives of their communities is being deeply Christian—but because being truly Christian requires physical communion. [Read more…]

Excluding Our Fellow Saints From the Sacrament

In Illinois, we’re now halfway through our sixth week under a stay-at-home order (and my family’s seventh week at home). And the stay-at-home order looks like it’s going to last at least another month here. That means at least 12 Sundays in Illinois without meeting together at church (and, even when the stay-at-home order ends, some people may make the eminently responsible and defensible decision to continue social distancing, and delay their return to church).

Ultimately, I don’t think putting church meetings on hold is optimal. (To be clear, it’s both necessary and good. It’s just not ideal.) We need human contact, and we need the spiritual benefits that come from gathering together. That said, it’s necessary, and on net, saving the lives and the health of our fellow Saints is both beneficial and will bless us and them.

Still, this extended time away from church means that some people—single women and families without priesthood holders in the home, for example—won’t have the ability to take the sacrament for three months or more.

The church has made a tentative stab at recognizing the position these women and families are in. On April 16, the church provided instructions for administering the church during the pandemic. The instructions provide that “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by the priesthood.” [Read more…]

On (Not) Blogging Through a Pandemic

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Monday starts my family’s fifth week of staying home (and fourth week under a formal stay-at-home order). Other than daily walks and occasional (rare) trips to the store to pick up necessities, my whole world has been the Chicago apartment we’ve lived in for the last half-decade-plus.

And my life has been pretty devoid of blogging.

You’d think, with all this spare time, I would have plenty to say here. (At the very least, I owe a book review of First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, which I finished reading weeks ago. Spoiler alert: it’s amazing, and you should get your hands on it for some quarantine reading. But I’ll do a fuller review in the near future.) [Read more…]

The Temporal Urgency of Faith

wonderlane-wBcqvA49hDw-unsplash

Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

Introductory Note:  Several years ago during General Conference I started journaling the messages my soul most longed to hear.  I posted one of those last Conference.  I’m doing so again now.  This requires a suspension of disbelief:  it contains a mix of true and aspirational content, and is written as if I had been asked to speak during General Conference.  I do not purport to actually have any authority to speak on behalf of the Church. 

Faith without works is dead.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to cast our spiritual burdens upon the Lord, rely on the grace of his Atonement, and put our faith in him during adversity.  But the Gospel also preaches that our spiritual health is intertwined with the physical welfare of our neighbors.  Pure religion looks not just to eternity but to now.

“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them:  ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled’; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.  (James 2:14-17)

[Read more…]

Domestic Violence and Coronavirus

chris-buckwald-RXWgx93tz8w-unsplash

Laura Brignone Bhagwat is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her dissertation tracks a public health intervention in hospital emergency rooms meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

Imagine yourself scared. Maybe you’re scared for your life; you’re definitely scared for your health and wellbeing. You’re probably scared for those around you, and scared for what your future holds. Imagine yourself terrified to go to the doctor, unable to secure your financial wellbeing. It probably isn’t that hard to do, as we’re all living in the age of the coronavirus.

Now, imagine that this coronavirus-like being lives in your house. [Read more…]

What is the right level of panic for the new coronavirus pandemic?

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Rachel H. DeMeester, MPH, a public health expert and Latter-day Saint living in the Seattle area.

Living in Washington state and being a public health professional, Covid-19 is on my mind almost constantly, but really, there are few places it hasn’t touched. Public health’s greatest challenge is giving recommendations that don’t induce panic but also aren’t ignored. That clearly has failed so far as people hoard toilet paper (irrational) and masks (ineffective since healthcare workers need them) and in many cases ignore pleas to spread out. Do we know everything we need to know about the virus? No. Do we know enough to act? Absolutely. No matter how independent we feel we are, we all have some level of social contact and therefore a personal stake and responsibility in Covid-19. Those who believe in God receive an extra reminder that we are all God’s children and are expected to care for each other as such. We should be concerned—not panicked—enough to act. [Read more…]

I am hyper-social. I am social distancing.

pablo-garcia-saldana-EqRnmhc50g0-unsplash

Last May I had an extended business trip that took me to the West Coast for twelve days (Los Angeles, then San Francisco, then Anchorage, then Seattle). While on business, I did what I always do: I looked up my friends in each city, individually texted them, and then scheduled every hour of free time as meals and visits to catch up.  I shaved two or so hours off of my sleep schedule each day so I could pack in catching up with more friends.

I love people.  One of my most persistent complaints is that there is not enough time in life to be best friends with everyone I think is amazing.

For my own curiosity on my flight back to D.C., I counted the number of friends I had “meaningfully” interacted with in that twelve day period. I defined “meaningful” as “engaged in conversation for at least one hour while hanging out in a group of four or fewer.”  The answer was forty-seven. [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…]

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…]

What I Wish My Prophet Would Say

shridhar-gupta-8ogSUIkFZWM-unsplash
Kenneth Merrill graduated from BYU with a degree in Philosophy and now works as a cinematographer in Los Angeles, CA. He’s married, with two boys, and in his spare time he likes to play music, rock climb, practice sleight of hand, and read/write—but mostly he just ends up staring at glowing screens.

It was a warm summer day in Long Island City, an area of Queens just across the river from Manhattan. My companion and I were on our way to an appointment in the Queens Bridge Projects when we stopped to talk to two older ladies on their way back home from the grocery store.

“Hi, I’m Elder Merrill, and we’re out here to tell people that we have a living prophet on this earth today. Would you be interested in hearing more about that?”

With frightening directness, one of the women turned to me and asked, “Oh really, a prophet? What’s he been prophesying lately?”

I probably stood slack-jawed for a decent 5 seconds before the next words tumbled uncontrollably out of my mouth:

“Drugs are bad.” [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…]

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…]

A Conversation with my Catholic Husband on the Word of Wisdom

hari-nandakumar-Ein9Zv7PXBw-unsplash

“Did you see your Church just officially banned green tea?”

“And vaping. That’s days-old news.”

“Mormon news isn’t real to me until the Washington Post covers it.”

“Fair enough. The best take I’ve seen so far is Jana Riess’s.”

“The Washington Post agrees:  they quote her. The Word of Wisdom is ‘not necessarily a slam-dunk in terms of clarity.’ That seems accurate.”

“The problem is our cultural norms surrounding the Word of Wisdom have strayed so far from its literal text that we’re all left wading through layers of shame and confusion.”

“You know what Jana or you or some other sassy Mormon feminist should do? Write a Rachel Held Evans style book: ‘A Year of Word of Wisdomhood.’ It would be hilarious.[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…]

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…]

The Unborn

The appointment of conservative justice Bret Kavanaugh has emboldened some states to take a run at challenging Roe v. Wade by putting forward legislation to outlaw abortion that is a deliberate overreach to force the issue in front of the Supreme Court.[1] From my own conversations with fellow ward members, one reason many LDS voters chose to elect Trump in 2016 is that they, like many social conservatives, vehemently oppose abortion and would like to see the overturn of Roe v. Wade.[2] However, LDS theology is not nearly as anti-abortion as many other conservative religions. Like many other platforms, this is one where both parties’ views are potentially consistent with the church’s stance. [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…]

Reforming the Honor Code Office

BYU Students are hoping to reform the Honor Code Office with a social media campaign, and students have been sharing stories online of their own run-ins with the HCO. The stories have a few recurring themes:

  • Gay students being targeted disproportionately, often for non-violations
  • Vindictive behavior between students that the HCO enables and promotes
  • Hints at breaches of confidentiality in the ecclesiastical confession process, putting repentant students’ educations on the line when they seek counsel
  • Policing of doubts and testimony by other students
  • Local police officers sharing information about BYU students that occurs off campus
  • The emotionally and psychologically unhealthy impacts of the HCO on students: paranoia, anxiety, depression, and the fact that some reported sins/violations are associated with psychological issues
  • That the HCO encourages lying and discourages repentance by inserting academic (and downstream financial) consequences to what should be personal spiritual matters
  • That there is an HCO file on each student, including fishing expeditions in their social media accounts. (FYI, they are legally obligated to show you your file if you request, and I would request the heck out of that thing.)

[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…]

Let Love be Love

kazden-cattapan-642673-unsplash

Nicole is a mother, feminist, and activist living in the Salt Lake Valley with her partner Kerstin and blended family of seven. She credits the women in her life for shaping her values and her hope for a world filled with compassion, authenticity, and uncompromising love.

It’s so hard to find any words to express my feelings about the news about the changed policy.

I type and delete and type and delete.

I couldn’t find the right words because I couldn’t find words that were true enough to myself, but that I thought would be safe from hurting or offending my family who are still members.  I love my family very much and they have been so great with Kerstin and me.  Since they’ve been so careful not to hurt us, I really, really don’t want to hurt them.

I think I’d just like to describe my dream world. [Read more…]