James Huntsman, brother of former Utah ambassador, presidential candidate and governor Jon Huntsman and a member of a wealthy and influential family, filed a federal lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday. He alleged that the church, widely known as the Mormon Church, had defrauded him with millions of dollars in donations by misleading him into thinking that his money would be spent on charitable causes. Why is a member of one of Utah’s most prominent families accusing the church of fraud?
It has to do with the idea of ”tithes” and the ways that a giant institution like the Mormon Church manages its wealth.
Mormons, as they were formerly known (they are “Latter-day Saints,” according to a new directive from President Russell M. Nelson), are some of the most generous people in the country. According to a 2020 study, Utah led the nation in the percentage of people who donate money and the percentage of income that people donate. This is in large part because the church encourages its members to give ten percent of their income in tithes.
Tithes are a fairly common concept among religious institutions; the Mormon Church seems better at encouraging its members to pay their share, and better at keeping score. Towards the end of the year, church members must declare to the church whether they are paying tithing, or only a partial payment or not. Those who do not pay tithing do not have access to the temples, where the most secret and sacred religious events take place. Tithing money, the faithful are told, goes toward church operating costs, as well as missionary work, charity, educational institutions, and temple building.
In 2019, the Washington Post (which was also the first to report on the lawsuit) reported that the church had not spent as much on these religious causes as many members assumed: $ 100 billion was sitting, unused, in accounts marked for purposes. charitable.
Many of the faithful were shocked to hear that the church had amassed such a wealth of donations, sometimes from people who gave despite experiencing personal financial difficulties. Others were upset by the secretive nature of the church’s finances and felt betrayed by the feeling of having been cheated. (Religious institutions do not have to report their income and assets, as other nonprofits do.) Others wondered if the church was violating federal tax laws.
The president of the church’s nonprofit investment division justified the storage of such a vast fortune by arguing that it would be used “in the event of the second coming of Christ,” according to a complaint reported by the Post. Sen. Mitt Romney at the time joked that he was “happy” that the church had saved money “for a rainy decade.”
Huntsman’s lawsuit, however, has to do with more than just the bulk of the change: According to the 2019 Post report, the church was accused of using some of its tax-exempt donations incorrectly in support of a company. church-run insurance and shopping center run jointly by the church and a real estate company. Huntsman’s lawsuit refers to that report, accusing the church of lying about the use of their donations and “secretly lin[ing] their own pockets by using the funds to develop a multi-million dollar commercial real estate and insurance empire that had nothing to do with charity. ”(The church has said no tithe funds were used to buy or develop the property of the mall or to help with the insurance company).
The lawsuit seeks to have the church return Huntsman’s donations. But it is also probably a statement. As with many religious institutions in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is losing actively participating youth; Some of those young people, the Church knows, are being shunned by the conservative culture and the Church’s handling of LGBTQ issues. Huntsman, a 50-year-old owner of a film distribution company in Southern California, said he hoped to give his reimbursed donations to “organizations and communities whose members have been marginalized by the teachings and doctrines of the Church, including through donations to organizations. charities that support LGBTQ. ” , African Americans and women’s rights “.
The secrecy and trust concerns predate the Post’s report on church finances. In December, the church was slapped with multiple lawsuits accusing it of covering up decades of sexual abuse among Boy Scout troops. (Historically, the church has had a close connection to the Boy Scouts; it cut ties in 2018 after scouts announced they would allow girls to participate.)
Many former Mormons, as they call themselves, include the immensity of the church’s wealth when discussing their reasons for leaving. For such critics, the institution fell victim to greed and then lied to its members for years.
The church is a major player when it comes to national and international charity. Recently, he announced that he was donating $ 20 million to UNICEF’s global mass vaccination efforts. And there is no evidence that church leaders are living lives of extravagant luxury. Instead, it seems that many Mormons feel betrayed by the idea of a church that held its adherents financially responsible but was unwilling to do the same for itself.
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