Paul Mero: LDS Church should surrender its tax-exempt status

Being free of taxation is not what makes a church, or a person, do the right thing.

(Rick Bowmer | AP photo) In this Oct. 5, 2019, photo, The Salt Lake Temple stands at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

In his recent opinion, “Government shouldn’t decide which churches ‘deserve’ a tax exemption,” my dear friend and long-time colleague Bill Duncan dutifully defends against critics of tax exemptions for religious institutions. But times have changed, so, new rules.

I could write a book explaining why our side, institutionally, should step away from old ways to protect what we’ve already lost, get out of culture wars that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never should be a part of, and let the Lord, not governments, protect us.

Outside of meal choices over the past 20 years, I cannot remember a time I have disagreed with my friend. He is not wrong, if we still lived in 1990. But his three-prong defense of tax exemptions for churches is no longer relevant for a vibrant faith-based culture.

He first invokes “the legal principle of the separation of church and state.” Is that principle real? Has it ever been? Of course, it’s real in terms of its most narrow definition prohibiting a state religion. But both on its face and in practice in Utah, the principle is corrupted. Everyone knows who runs politics in Utah.

But tax exemption flies against the whole meaning of separation. Makes no sense to argue that our freedom to exercise our faith exists because of a government or its tax policies. Ask Jesus, Joseph Smith and all great martyrs if a tax exemption was their grand protector.

“The broad secular benefits that churches and religious practice produce for society” would occur without tax exemption. I pay 10% of my gross income to the LDS Church and my income, property and purchases are all taxed. Would I donate more were I not taxed? Likely. But I already do that, too, while being fully taxed.

The pro-exemption argument cannot be that my church can do more than it otherwise would do without it. Choices made by millions of faithful Saints are proof otherwise.

My friend’s final point, I’m sure much to the delight of our Founding Fathers and every generation’s moral majority, is our deep appreciation of faith and what it does for us personally and, by extension, society warranting exemption. I am a part of this majority. But what motivates me at my core is my individual conscience.

My individual conscience, not my collective faith, is what helps me distinguish the difference between selling an orange and selling a human being. I do not need my faith to tell me not to enslave human beings. But is it possible that someone’s faith, right out of the Good Book, justified slavery?

A majoritarian argument hardly works for long or even for good. If it did, our side would not have lost modern America’s culture war. By the way, acknowledging the moral and legal failure of majoritarian thinking is precisely why, when I ran Sutherland Institute and influenced how Utah would defend its marriage law in court, I insisted that our arguments be full-throated, avoid majority rule (i.e., “because we said so”), and steeped in natural law intellectual traditions so, whether win or lose, our opinion would be transcendent for generations to come. (So much for my insistence.)

Tax exemption has nothing to do with defending my individual conscience, my faith and obviously a litany of cultural issues in which I believe deeply. And it is on this last point wherewith I disagree most fervently with my friend and our church.

Rather than fight to keep its tax exemption, the LDS Church ought to relinquish it voluntarily now. Tax exemption has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ or sharing it with the world. But it does have very much to do with critics of our church who use it as a virtuous platform from which to attack us. It invites contention.

Faithful Saints will continue to pay tithing and make every other sacrifice for the work of the Lord. Critics will remain but without our tax exemption their criticisms would be opinions only, lacking a sense of legitimacy that comes with their warped defense of the public good.

Paul Mero

Paul Mero, Las Vegas, is the former long-time president of Sutherland Institute.