Freedom isn’t free. Unless it’s freedom of religion. Then it’s at least tax-free.
Most states have exempted churches from paying taxes since before there were states. At the federal level, tax exemptions formally came about in the late 1800s and have been reinforced repeatedly through legislation and Supreme Court
The notion stems from the First Amendment’s protections against government interference in the exercise of religion, as well as a notion that churches, generally speaking, provide a social benefit. And I’m not here to argue that.
We have seen, however, the definition of a religious organization blurred over time and questions have been raised about what sort of activities should be protected by that tax-exempt umbrella.
Take the most recent example, a bombshell story in The Washington Post citing an IRS complaint by David A. Nielsen, until recently an investment manager for Ensign Peak Advisors, an arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — you know who they are. Nielsen alleges that the church maintains a $100 billion reserve fund with money given in member tithes for charitable purposes, but not used to that end.
In the past 22 years, the church, Nielsen claimed, didn’t use any of the money from the fund for charitable or humanitarian purposes, but did dip into it to prop up two for-profit businesses, including the City Creek Mall.
If it’s true, this kind of commingling would seem to violate both the spirit and the letter of the religious exemption and could result in the church owing billions of dollars in taxes.
The church, in a statement Tuesday, acknowledged it maintains reserves but said it uses “the vast majority” of tithing proceeds “immediately to meet the needs of the growing church including more meetinghouses, temples, education, humanitarian work and missionary efforts throughout the world.”
Nielsen’s complaint, the church leaders said, was “based on a narrow perspective and limited information,” and that the religion complies with all relevant tax laws.
I’m not here to referee. Yes, running a church is expensive, the church does do considerable charitable and humanitarian work, and I don’t have any direct knowledge of what Nielsen alleges or the intricacies of church finances.
Members and nonmembers alike can decide for themselves what they think, and how they viewed the church before the report probably will dictate whether or not they are shocked.
But I would suggest that, to the extent that this $100 billion revelation was a surprise, perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
Let’s set the LDS Church — and all churches — aside for the moment, and look at the 1.6 million registered nonprofits in the country in 2018. We’re talking about civil rights organizations, humanitarian groups, chambers of commerce and, yes, now The Salt Lake Tribune.
All of them have to file some version of Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service, which is available to the public. It’s generally high-level data — income, donations, expenses, assets, programming, affiliated organizations, salaries of top executives, that kind of thing.
That sort of transparency requirement comes with receiving the often considerable benefit of tax exempt status. But religions don’t have to do this. Religions don’t have to say how much money they brought in and how much they spent. They don’t have to identify how much is going to humanitarian work or affiliated organizations or investments. If they did, this bombshell of a story would have been old news.
Transparency among nonprofits matters because it allows people to see how an organization spends its money before they donate. Numerous groups exist that analyze and rate the data on the 990s to make it more available. In a number of high-profile instances, nonprofit organizations are held to account when they fail to live up to their mission.
A few years ago, the Tampa Bay Times, The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN did an extensive investigation identifying 50 of “America’s Worst Charities,” like the Cancer Fund of America that spent less than 2 cents of every dollar on charitable purposes. It eventually shut down.
Washington Post reporter David Farenthold won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation into the widespread ethical and legal violations at the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which prompted legal action and led to the foundation being shut down and forced to pay $2 million in penalties.
Couldn’t the local pastor who uses a church to hide millions of dollars while stockpiling cars or the sprawling megachurch with private jets use a little more public oversight into the good they supposedly are doing?
To be clear, I’m not putting the LDS Church in that category. What I am saying is: Transparency is good. It’s good in government, it’s good in business, and it’s good for charities. So why not churches?