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…]

The Temporal Urgency of Faith

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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

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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…]

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…]

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…]

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…]

Terrorism and Hospitality

In 2012, I stayed at the Taj Mumbai Hotel. I was there on business, my third stop visiting our India offices that fell under my jurisdiction. My manager assistant who was traveling with me was raised in Mumbai (which he insisted on calling Bombay, the name the city was called until 1995 when political parties changed). The hotel is a luxurious Colonialist structure (built in 1903) with 120 rooms and several high end restaurants. The reception staff proudly mentioned (for my benefit, as an American) that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had stayed there in 2009 and pointed to the place just outside the security-walled entrance where President Obama made a statement to the press. These events were noteworthy because the hotel was among locations that were attacked in 2008 by Pakistani terrorists who landed a boat a few yards from the entrance, then went on to massacre nearly 200 citizens, wounding 300 more, at 12 locations around the city. Because I had stayed in the hotel, I was intrigued about the limited release movie Hotel Mumbai that just came out, so we went a week ago last Friday. It was a haunting experience. [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…]

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…]

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…]

Repent Ye, for Climate Change is at Hand?

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I’ve always accepted the scientific consensus surrounding carbon emissions, greenhouse gasses, the ozone layer, and climate change.  But for a long time I elected to not care.

Why?  Because I bought into the folk doctrines that God created the Earth’s resources to be used, that a global temperature rise of 1-2 degrees over 100 years isn’t material,  and in any event, Christ’s imminent Second Coming would renew the Earth and fix everything before disaster struck.

As a religious studies student in college, I once wrote a paper on Isaac Newton’s eschatological prediction that the Second Coming would happen in 2060.  Thereafter in casual conversation, I used the 2060 date to support my religious opinion that climate change would never matter.   (“The worst predictions don’t even start until 2100 — Jesus will have come back well before then!”)  One afternoon at the Indiana University LDS Institute, I tried that line on a Ph.D. student studying ecology.  Our resulting discussion did not end well for me. [Read more…]

Go and Do Likewise?

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Rusty Clifton is a longtime friend of BCC.

A couple months ago I came home from work to my wife in the front yard chatting with a lady who, by all visible measures, appeared to be homeless. I had never seen this woman before, but my wife later assured me that she was known by many people in our upper-middle-class Salt Lake City neighborhood. While my natural inclination is to avoid situations that have the potential to unnecessarily add complications to my life, my wife overflows with compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden. So that evening, after determining she was clean from drugs and not dangerous, we agreed to let her stay in our basement (it’s a mother-in-law apartment we use for guests or the occasional AirBNB) until we could help her secure more permanent housing and employment. Over the course of the next week or so we did what we could to accommodate her: secure privacy, food, shower, soft bed with fresh linens, rides to housing offices/employment interviews, and a friendly home base while she worked to get herself back on her feet. [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…]

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…]

Mormonism and the Prosperity Gospel

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Mette Ivie Harrison is a well-known mystery and young-adult novelist and frequent guest here. She is the author of The Book of Laman, published by BCC Press.

Most Mormons have no idea what the “prosperity gospel” is, and if you point them to typical TV evangelicals, they insist that Mormonism is nothing like that. Yet, there are far too frequent occasions when I find myself biting my tongue about something a fellow Mormon says, either casually, at a wedding or other social event, or on the stand during a talk, that translates into precisely that: prosperity gospel.

For the sake of clarity, let me give a useful definition of “prosperity gospel:” a modern version of the gospel in which those who follow God in strict obedience are given blessings of wealth, health, and power. [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…]

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…]

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…]

Reminder: Church History Symposium tomorrow and Friday

Just a quick reminder: the 2018 LDS Church History Symposium is happening tomorrow at BYU and Friday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake. The topic—“Financing Faith: The Intersection of Business and Religion”—looks fascinating, and there are a host of great people presenting.

Also, I’m presenting Thursday at 1:00 in room 2265 of the BYU Conference Center (“Brigham Young vs. the Bureau of Internal Revenue“). I’ve got some pretty cool slides to accompany the presentation. If you’re in town and available, I’d love to see you then!

Announcement: Church History Symposium 2018

This semester, I’m teaching a course on not-for-profit corporations. Today’s class deals with the duties of charitable trustees and board members to invest the organization’s money responsibly.

The class is at least tangentially related to this year’s Church History Symposium, to be held on March 1 at the Conference Center at BYU and March 2 at the LDS Conference Center in Salt Lake. This year’s symposium is entitled “Business, Wealth, Enterprise, and Debt: The Economic Side of Mormon History, 1830–1930.” [Read more…]

The Median Mormon Family and the Tax Plan

Plenty of people are wondering how the GOP tax bill will affect them personally. Although pretty much everybody has been wondering, the Washington Post recently spotlighted a Mormon family with those questions. So I decided to take a look.

A quick disclaimer first: the answer is, it totally depends on your personal situation. And because of that, I’ve decided to construct an average (or sometimes median) Mormon family. I’ve constructed them with their Mormonism in mind where I could find specific Mormon stuff; where I couldn’t, I used Utah data. And I totally get that that’s not 100% accurate. Most Mormons aren’t in Utah, and a significant percentage of Utahns aren’t Mormon.

Still, it’s good enough to give a rough, blog-worthy estimate. So, without further ado, meet the Nephi family!  [Read more…]

Mormons and the Tax Bill

Five and a half weeks ago, I posted about a couple ways that the House tax bill would impact Mormons and the Mormon church. Since that time, the House passed its tax bill and the Senate passed its bill. The bills differed, so they went to a conference committee, where (GOP) Senators and Representatives tried to come up with a compromise that both houses of Congress could agree on.

And this afternoon, they released their bill; the GOP wants to pass it before Christmas.

Now, I haven’t had time to go through all 503 pages[fn1] of the bill; still, given that I did a preview of changes that would affect the church and Mormons, I thought I’d revisit them in light of the new tax bill.  [Read more…]

Book Review: The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power

D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2017).

When I heard that the third volume of Quinn’s Mormon Hierarchy trilogy would deal with the Mormon church and money, I was totally excited. I love exploring how religions deal with money (and, for that matter, how money deals with religions). And I figured that Quinn would have encyclopedic knowledge of Mormonism and money; he has, after all, written about it in the past. And when I saw that the Kindle version was selling for just $9, what could I do? So I downloaded it and read it.

First the good: Quinn has assembled an impressive amount of information related to the LDS church and money. Nearly 200 years’ worth. Some of his history I was familiar with; a good portion (especially dealing with early-20th-century Utah) I wasn’t. For instance, he has a fascinating snippet of discussion about the church and property tax exemption (both in Utah and throughout the world).[fn1] It’s too brief, and seems at some points to conflate property and income tax exemptions, but I’m entirely sure I’ll return to this part of the book in future projects that I look at. [Read more…]

Quick Update on Politicking at Church

On Monday, I wrote about a couple ways that the House tax bill might impact Mormons. Well, today Kevin Brady, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced an amendment to that bill. One of those ways was by carving out a small exception to the so-called Johnson Amendment for churches.[fn1] There was a lot of discussion swirling around over whether eliminating it only for churches would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Well, apparently Brady didn’t want to take that risk. His amendment expands the exemption to all tax-exempt organizations. [Read more…]

Mormons and H.R. 1

On Thursday, the House released H.R. 1, its fundamental tax reform bill. (It also released an 82-page summary of the 400+-page bill, and a 300-page JCT report on the bill.)

Now, the bill that has been presented isn’t the law that will be enacted (if any is enacted); the House is scheduled to start marking the bill up today. Still, it presents a view of the House Republicans’ vision for tax reform. I wanted to highlight three provisions that would directly impact the church and Mormons as a result of their religious practices. [Read more…]

Erasing Race

We’ve had some outstanding Relief Society lessons in my ward this year, owing to the great teachers we have. Recently, we were talking about how to talk with people not of our faith or culture, basically how to get along with everyone without being a jerk. Something like that. I was in and out a little bit. [Read more…]