You Want the Church to Be a Corporation. Really.

I blame Time for the whole "LDS Inc." movement.

I blame Time for the whole “LDS Inc.” movement.

The other day, our own Aaron B. posted this on Facebook:

The single DUMBEST criticism of the LDS Church is the claim that “it’s a business, not a church”, or “it’s a corporation, not a church”. Obviously it’s both …[fn1]

I’ll confess that, like Aaron, I’ve never been particularly impressed by the implication that somehow corporate organization is antithetical to spirituality. After a discussion with one of Aaron’s friends, though, I think I kind of understand where some who object to its corporate status are coming from.  [Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing Revisited

The Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church may have the coolest parsonage anywhere.

The Chicago Temple First United Methodist Church may have the coolest parsonage anywhere.

Not quite three years ago, and again not quite two years ago, I wrote about a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit against the IRS. In the suit, the FFRF argued that section 107 of the Internal Revenue Code was unconstitutional.

Quick refresher: in general, when your employer gives you something, that thing you receive is income to you. And it doesn’t matter if what you receive is cash, is property, or even is services. To the extent your employer gives you something of value, that’s income to you.

Congress has carved out a handful of exceptions to the general rule, though. Maybe most importantly, employer-provided health insurance is not treated as income. So those of us lucky enough to have health insurance provided by our employers don’t have to pay taxes on its value. Similarly, all kinds of fringe benefits are excluded.  [Read more…]

“Work Makes the Difference”: A Church Welfare Proposal

I have a sure-fire proposal to improve church welfare.

Church welfare admittedly has a long and storied history. In 1936, the Church officially inaugurated the Church Security Plan. President Grant explained that the purpose of the plan was to provide

sufficient food, fuel, clothing, and bedding to supply through the coming winter, every needy and worthy Church family unable to furnish these for itself, in order that no member of the Church should suffer in these times of stress and emergency.[fn1]

In 1936, the Great Depression, which hit Utah hard, was still a recent memory, and its effects were still being felt in Utah. So it makes plenty of sense that church leaders were trying to establish a procedure that could help members weather the financial storm.  [Read more…]

How Much Accommodation?

130114152903-abc-schoolhouse-rock-just-a-bill-horizontal-large-galleryLast week on The Surly Subgroup, I wrote about a bill making its way through the House right now. The last section of that bill would make it even harder than it already is for the IRS to audit churches it suspects have campaigning for or against candidates for office.

Reading the bill (and writing the post) crystallized for me a question I’ve had at the back of my mind: how much accommodation should we push for? That is, should there be an upper to the exceptions churches and other religious organizations seek from the law?  [Read more…]

The Mormon Church in the @PanamaPapers?!? [Updated]

[Update below]

Yesterday, the ICIJ released its searchable Panama Papers database. (For some background on the Panama Papers, you can look my BCC post or my Surly Subgroup post. Or the ICIJ’s site.) Some enterprising individual appears to have plugged Mormon-related words into the search bar, and came up with at least two hits: Bonneville International and Deseret Investment.

Now, this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing with this database: searching for those who think they can use tax havens to avoid meeting their obligations. So should you be outraged that the church is doing this?

Short answer: no. But I’m a law professor, so the short answer is never enough.   [Read more…]

Happy Tax Day! (Unless You Live in MA or ME)

Brigham Young, c. 1870

Brigham Young, c. 1870

Most years (at least when I remember), I like to do a Tax Day post.[fn1] (And yes, I get that Tax Day statutorily falls on April 15 for calendar year taxpayers, and I get that April 15 was Friday. But Friday was also the observation of Emancipation Day in D.C., which pushed Tax Day to today. Except in Massachusetts and Maine, where today is apparently Patriots’ Day, which means Tax Day is tomorrow.)

For this year’s Mormon-y Tax Day celebration, we’re going back to the Civil War-era income tax. It only lasted a decade, from 1861-1871, but, in that time, it managed to ensnare itself with the Mormons out in Utah.  [Read more…]

Tl;dr: The #PanamaPapers

Note: if, for some reason, you’d rather get this information in the style of a morning newscast rather Panama_Skylinethan read it, I’ve got a link for you at the end of the post.

You’ve probably heard by now about the Panama Papers leak: basically, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists got 40 years of documents (about 11 million documents, or 2.6 terabytes of data) from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Mossack Fonseca apparently specializes in creating offshore entities and otherwise providing the tools people need to hide their money. (Note that the law firm claims it didn’t do anything wrong, and that there are non-illegal and -immoral reasons for putting money offshore.)

Even though there’s nothing Mormon about the leak, it’s a big enough thing that Mormons (and, frankly, everybody else) should know something about it. In Q&A format. [Read more…]

Ted Cruz and Tithing

TithingOkay, so this post isn’t actually about Ted Cruz; it’s more inspired by an article McKay Coppins posted today on recent Evangelical criticisms of Ted Cruz. In short, Cruz, a Baptist, is courting the Evangelical vote. But he’s facing pushback from some Evangelicals (including Mike Huckabee), who argue that his charitable giving (roughly 1% of his income) belies his claim of authentic Christianity which, according to them, demands a 10-percent tithe.

So tithing. As Mormons, we’re squarely in the 10-percent-(of-gross-or-net-or-something)-to-the-church camp. But is ten percent (a tithe, after all) to the church the inevitable conclusion for what represents appropriate religious giving? Not surprisingly, no. [Read more…]

Are Mormons Anti-Modernists?

As the Ammon Bundy headlines continue to dominate the news cycle, many have been wondering whether these views are inherently Mormon as the Bundy clan claims or if Mormonism encourages these types of attitudes.  While this episode has a libertarian theme, which may or may not relate to the question of anti-modernism, I wanted to revisit a post I wrote in 2013 about the anti-modernist streak that seems to be emerging in various faith traditions, including Mormonism.

[Read more…]

The Rise of Zuism

sumeranu14_17For the last day or so, English-language media has been awash in news of a new-old Icelandic religion: Zuism.

Okay, maybe “awash” is the wrong word; still, Zuism has captured the media’s imagination.

What is Zuism? It’s a recent Icelandic religion that focuses on the worship of ancient Sumerian gods. Originally established in 2013, in 2014, it only had four registered members. Today, though, it appears to have roughly 3,000 members (or 1% of the Icelandic population), an explosive growth rate. What’s leading to that crazy growth?

If you believe the media, taxes.  [Read more…]

Financial Planning for Children With Disabilities

Hoffer family pictureWe’re honored to have a guest post from Stephanie Hoffer. Stephanie is a professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. She is an educator, a scholar, and an advocate, and arguably the preeminent authority on the ABLE Act. We’re excited that she’s agreed to introduce us to this important new law.

My son George is a bright shining star. He is almost five, and he loves to read out loud, play the harmonica, and paint. He also happens to have Down Syndrome. He is smart, funny, and loving, and I can’t imagine life without him. I am grateful every day for the privilege of being his mom. And like any other mom of any other child, I worry every day about his future.

Our life with George hasn’t always been easy. On the day that he was born, a social worker came to our hospital room and told me that we should do two things right away: apply for Medicaid and write George out of our will. I was stunned. I choked back the inevitable tears and asked why. “Because,” she replied, “they are really expensive.” Stung by the label “they,” and hurt by the thought of not being able to save for my precious baby’s future, I asked her to please leave.  [Read more…]

Book Review: How the Other Half Banks

How the other half banks coverBy Common Consent may seem like an odd place to review Mehrsa Baradaran‘s excellent How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation, and the Threat to Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2015) [Amazon]. Although Professor Baradaran is Mormon, the book has little explicitly Mormon content (I mean, it does mention a couple of Sen. Wallace Bennett’s interactions with the regulation of banks, but that’s as close as I remember it getting).

That said, as Mormons, we’ve been encouraged to become informed and involved in our communities. And understanding banking, especially as it relates to the poor, is, if not absolutely essential to that charge, at least tremendously important.  [Read more…]

How Offended Should I Be? Humanitarian Edition

impact_financial

The Church just released its UK financial statements.[fn1] And with the release has come a fair amount of internet hand-wringing about some of the details.[fn2] Two details, in particular, seem to be bothering people: salary information and the lack of spending from the British Church’s humanitarian fund.

So should these things bother you?

Honestly, I can’t say. But I can say that, before you decide to be bothered (or, for that matter, before you decide not to be bothered), there are a couple questions you should ask.[fn3]  [Read more…]

Survey on Marital Quality and Belief Changes

A topic often under discussion in the bloggernacle is how to navigate marriages when one spouse experiences a change in belief.  If this describes your marriage, please follow the link to participate.  Eligibility requirements are below.

https://iu.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_6tYdXEwogQ9PKK1

[Read more…]

On Oxfam and Your Taxes

OUS_Logo_h_greenAs Ronan mentioned a couple weeks ago, in 2015, BCC is going to encourage our readers to donate to Oxfam America to aid in its efforts to relieve poverty. Lest our altruism be imperfect, though, I wanted to mention that donating to charitable institutions doesn’t require pure altruism; that is, the warm glow of giving may not be the only benefit you receive from your donation. You may (at least, assuming you’re a U.S. taxpayer) also be able to reduce your taxes. [Read more…]

Gratitude & Selfish Altruism

Poverty creates a cycle of low self-esteem that is tough to break.

Why do we give?  Is our altruism ever purely unselfish or do we give in part because we hope to gain something? In the wake of Thanksgiving, my son was assigned a talk on gratitude in which he talked about some of our family experiences, and it reminded me of a post I did a while back.

Eighteen months ago, we had an opportunity to join a house building in a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  My husband was working as treasurer for a Cambodian women’s charity, the Tabitha Foundation, that provides jobs to women who would otherwise not be able to support themselves or their children.  In addition to providing jobs for these women, the foundation was also breaking ground to build a women’s hospital.

[Read more…]

Pastors’ Housing, Take 2

ParsonageHarpersLast week, almost a year after a district court in Wisconsin declared the parsonage exemption unconstitutional, the Seventh Circuit has reversed her decision. And thus ends a (brief) chapter in the religious culture wars.

Or not . . . [Read more…]

Choices, Choices

I’ve been reflecting a lot on E. Quentin Cook’s talk called “Choose Wisely.”  This was the opening talk of the Priesthood session, so I suppose that makes me not the target audience, and yet it’s clearly a talk with universal application. [1]  I won’t let that stop me.

E. Cook begins by talking about the problems when we rationalize our failures to act heroically.  He uses the example of Lucy not catching the ball in the Peanuts comic strips.

While always humorous, Lucy’s excuses were rationalizations; they were untrue reasons for her failure to catch the ball.

He then goes on to talk about the eternal ramifications when we rationalize our failure to prepare for our eternal goals. [Read more…]

Are We Not All Beggars?

blind beggar“…look to the poor and needy and administer to their relief, that they shall not suffer.” Now note the imperative verb in that passage: “They SHALL not suffer.” That is language God uses when he means business.

On Saturday afternoon, Jeffrey R. Holland stood at the podium delivered a gut-wrenching punch to all Latter-day Saints on what it means to actually live as a Christian. Being a follower of the Savior means acknowledging very real commandments, not mere suggestions, on what it means to dedicate our lives to following the Son of Man. [Read more…]

An Economic Explanation for BYU-I’s Dress Standards(?)

Ashton Kutcher couldn't walk around BYU-I like that.

Ashton Kutcher couldn’t walk around BYU-I like that.

As Steve highlighted earlier today,[fn1] the BYU-Idaho dress and grooming standards are arbitrary and relatively absurd. I mean, seriously, as a born-and-raised Californian, I can’t comprehend a dress code that bans flip-flops.[fn2] The dress and grooming standards can’t be all about modesty, because ankles and toes and beards, oh my! And if all they’re about is obedience, well, that’s stupid. There’s no spiritual value to obeying arbitrary rules.[fn3]

But maybe their actual function isn’t modesty. Or obedience. May it’s economics.  [Read more…]

The Myth of Traditional Marriage

Ooh, baby.

According to the song, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.  But when it comes to the history of marriage, pairing marriage with love is putting the cart before the horse.  If we look at why people used to get married, traditionally, we’ll quickly see why marriages today are less stable.  And why that may not be a terrible thing.

The phrase “traditional marriage” [1] is currently in vogue to describe opponents of gay marriage.  Just what does marriage look like over time?  Why do people marry and why is marriage changing so much? [Read more…]

Germany’s Church Tax

A couple days ago, the Wall Street Journal highlighted (subscription required[fn1]) the accelerating loss of members certain churches in Germany are facing. The popular press is placing the blame at least partly on the new administration of Germany’s Church Tax.

What? you ask. A church tax? What’s that?

So glad you asked. [Read more…]

Church Finances, 1947-Style

In April 1959, the Church published its last financial report. The last here is important, though, because, for almost half a century leading up to that report, the Church presented a relatively detailed financial report in each April General Conference.

Until a couple months ago, though, I’d never seen the financial reports that the Church issued. In the course of his reading and research, J. Stapley came across the Church’s 1947 financial report, and offered to let me blog it. I jumped at the chance, and the disclosure turns out, in many ways, to be as fascinating as I’d hoped.  [Read more…]

In Which I Unpack a Finance-Based Atonement Parable (or Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Work on Wall Street)

Understanding the Atonement is tough.[fn1] To try to understand it, theologians have come up with theories to describe the whys and hows of the Atonement, and stories to illustrate how the Atonement works.

We’ve got a handful of favorite illustrative stories in Mormonism, including bicycles and lickings. I was recently reading chapter 12 of the Gospel Principles manual, and I came across an Atonement story that I haven’t seen in a while: a parable of a debtor and a creditor. What follows are my thoughts as I reread it:[fn2]  [Read more…]

Some Tax Benefits Are Just for Churches

(I originally wanted to call this “Pastoral Housing, Take 2″[fn1] but, it turns out, pastoral housing is only one small aspect of the case.)

Last week, a federal court in Kentucky issued a decision in a lawsuit that could have far-reaching ramifications for churches.[fn2] In broad strokes, American Atheists, Inc., Atheists of Northern Indiana, Inc., and Atheist Archives of Kentucky, Inc. sued the IRS, arguing that certain tax provisions applicable solely to churches were unconstitutionally discriminatory. [Read more…]

A Day of Fasting and Prayer

Nicolas Kristof has done us a great service in bringing to the nation’s (and world’s) attention the depraved and cowardly kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian girls by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram. Boko Haram means “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language. All that “secular” learning. Boko Haram would rather conflate religion and the state, ensuring that women have no voice in society, confined to whatever influence their husbands allow them in their homes in the forced marriages into which they are sold in their early or mid-teens. [Read more…]

“Celestial Kingdom Jurisdiction” and Tax Protesters

In 1999, Jimmie Duane Ross got $840,000 from his former employer, the result of an arbitration hearing. I don’t know what Ross did with that money; I do know, however, one thing he didn’t do: pay his taxes.[fn1]

Which is wrong, of course, but not by itself newsworthy. Lots of people don’t pay their taxes.[fn2] So why blog this? Two reasons: first, today is April 15th.[fn3] Second, in addition to standard tax protester arguments for why he didn’t need to pay his taxes, Ross made some expressly Mormon arguments.  [Read more…]

Taxing the Temple

10439537According to yesterday’s news, the Church lost an appeal in the European Court of Human Rights and, as a result, will have to pay property taxes on the Preston, England temple.

Of course, the decision raises a number of questions, not the least of which is how a property tax dispute gets to the European Court of Human Rights in the first place. Other fair questions include whether this evinces European prejudice against the Mormon church and what ramifications this decision will have for the Church.  [Read more…]

Hunger Banquet 2014

BYU Hunger Banquet 2014, Co-hosted by The Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU (source: http://tinyurl.com/lfz42t3)

BYU Hunger Banquet 2014, Co-hosted by The Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU (source: http://tinyurl.com/lfz42t3)

BYU’s 24th annual Hunger Banquet yesterday was a perfect way to welcome in Fast Sunday and as a prelude to the upcoming season of Lent beginning this week. The Hunger Banquet was a wonderful success, as it has been in past years, and I would like to express my thanks to the students from various initiatives across campus and the Kennedy Center for their work in continuing this important experience for the community. Fasting today on the food I received as someone assigned to the “developing world” in last night’s events has directed my mind to the less fortunate even more starkly than on a normal Fast Sunday. [Read more…]

Polygamous Tax Evasion

In the litany of evils perpetrated by polygamists, one evil stands out above the rest: tax evasion. Feel the chill? Yes, tax evasion.

O RLY? you might ask. [Read more…]