Except for devout Latter-day Saints, Utahns want to require churches to disclose their finances, poll shows

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It turns out that the very Latter-day Saints who may have the biggest stake in how their tithing contributions are spent have the least interest in forcing churches to disclose those finances.

While a new poll for The Salt Lake Tribune shows that 54% of Utahns support the idea of having tax-exempt religious organizations publicly report their finances, barely a third of self-identified “very active” Latter-day Saints favor such a requirement.

The results come in the aftermath of a whistleblower’s allegation that the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has amassed $100 billion in a reserve account from donations intended, but never spent, for charity.

The survey, conducted by Suffolk University for The Tribune, revealed widespread support for making churches publicly disclose their money matters — something U.S. tax law doesn’t currently require, as it does for other nonprofits.

Nearly two-thirds of Utah Protestants (71%), 61% of Catholics and 66% of “not active” Latter-day Saints favor such mandatory reporting.

Those who profess no religious affiliation are the most enthusiastic for such disclosure rules, with 87% backing that requirement.

“Somewhat active” Latter-day Saints are more divided, with 45% supporting the notion and 42% opposing it. But “very active” members of the Utah-based faith, who are more likely to have paid the 10% tithing their church encourages, are solidly against such a rule, with 57% against it (the bulk of them “strongly” so) and 35% for it.

The overall poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

[Read more: Poll: Most Utahns, LDS or otherwise, support a clergy confession bill]

That gap between “very active” Latter-day Saints and every other category is “pretty stunning,” said Sam Brunson, a tax attorney at Loyola University in Chicago. “At least to me, it suggests a remarkable level of trust in church leadership, not just on spiritual/religious matters but also on more mundane secular matters.”

Brunson, who also blogs for the Mormon website By Common Consent, said it also suggests that most very active members “either didn’t hear about, or didn’t have a negative reaction to, the whistleblower letter.”

As a practicing Latter-day Saint, Margaret Woolley Busse said that while she favors increased transparency from faith groups, she would oppose forcing them to report their finances.

“I would want to understand more about the history of the law that allows religious organizations not to disclose before saying that I absolutely would support the requirement,” said Busse, former associate director of Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative. “I would encourage the church of its own volition to be more transparent, simply because it is good practice.”

Busse, who now lives in Utah, is “not nervous about how the church uses the funds,” she said. “But it’s in everyone’s interest to be transparent.”

The survey results “aren’t terribly surprising,” Busse wrote in an email. “I would imagine that, in general, folks who are more religious are more protective of their faith against what may be considered an intrusion from the state, especially in this highly polarized political environment where trust seems to have been reduced between the more religious people and the less religious people.”

Many of the more religious people fear that the “government and those who are less religious or not at all religious have encroached on their religious liberty,” she said. “On the other side, the less religious people may support much more transparency because of the perception amongst many that religious people claim ‘religious liberty rights’ to enable discrimination.”

Like Brunson, Busse said, “the more active one is in the LDS Church, the more likely one is to trust the church as an institution, and so the view naturally would be that more government oversight would not be needed or warranted.”

The LDS Church declined to respond to the survey results or to a question about whether it is considering disclosing its finances, a practice the faith ceased doing more than half a century ago.

Because the poll did not break down more active and less active Catholics and Protestants, Busse said, it is harder to see differences among those adherents.

“I would imagine that in light of the ongoing scandals with regards to priest sexual abuse, there is more motivation to want more government oversight amongst Catholics,” Busse said. “For Protestants, I would surmise that those who are in the more evangelical denominations would be more likely to not want increased government intrusion into their faith, for the same reasons already articulated, than those in more mainline Protestant denominations.”

The poll query itself “can almost be seen as a proxy for how people feel about religious organizations generally,” she said, “versus simply a question about publicly disclosing their finances.”

For her part, Catholic respondent Pat Sweeney said she would favor requiring churches to disclose their finances, citing concerns in her own faith about the Vatican bank scandal.

“When you are giving to a nonprofit, you have no idea where your funds are going or how they are being used,” the Midway resident said. “Without an explanation, it seems like a little fraud.”

Public disclosure, she added, would clear that up.

Another survey respondent, Jed Coombs, who said he resigned from the LDS Church a couple of years ago, favors financial disclosure for all faiths.

“Having a tax-exempt status brings responsibility,” the Orem resident said. “If finances are not disclosed, the potential for abuse is high.”

If he gives to a charity, Coombs said, he wants to know how the money is being used. “You don’t want to donate for one thing, and find out they did something different.”