Latest from Mormon Land: Tithing lawsuit against the church is born again

Also: Live podcast coming with religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Administration Building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. A federal fraud lawsuit against the Utah-based faith has been given new life by a federal judge.

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(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Peggy Fletcher Stack, senior religion reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Fraud lawsuit is reborn

A federal lawsuit accusing the church of fraud has taken on new life.

Attorneys for North Carolina resident Laura Gaddy, a former Latter-day Saint, refiled a second amended complaint in the matter Oct. 22, essentially updating her case against the church in U.S. District Court in Utah after a judge allowed the move earlier this year.

Gaddy and two co-plaintiffs, Lyle D. Small and Leanne R. Harris, accuse church leaders through the years of concealing key aspects of Mormonism’s origins and the character of founder Joseph Smith as part of defrauding “hundreds of thousands” of now ex-members of their tithing.

Judge Robert Shelby rejected portions of an earlier version of the case, ruling that some of Gaddy’s allegations sought to delve into matters of faith shielded by the U.S. Constitution. But Shelby has also explicitly recognized that religious institutions are not legally immune to fraud claims and, on Oct. 15, he granted leave for this latest complaint to be filed.

Church lawyers have until Nov. 12 to respond, to be followed by countering briefs from Gaddy’s lawyers in early 2022.

In September, a separate federal judge tossed out a high-profile fraud lawsuit over tithing against the church brought by Californian James Huntsman. That case, too, is not over. Huntsman has filed to appeal the dismissal.

The COVID effect

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A family sits reverently while a prayer is offered during a modified sacrament meeting in the Carrollton Ward in Washington, D.C., Aug. 16, 2020. A national survey has examined how many respondents self-identify as Latter-day Saints, numbers that may give clues about the effect of COVID-19 on the faith's membership numbers in the U.S.

We know that church growth cratered last year.

At 98,627, the overall membership gain didn’t even crack six figures, according to the faith’s own statistics, and convert baptisms sank by nearly 50%.

These declines are hardly surprising, given that the coronavirus pandemic put tens of thousands of missionaries on the shelf.

But numbers nerd Stephen Cranney wondered in a Times and Season blog post just how “real” the COVID slump was — at least in the U.S.?

So he turned to the 2021 General Social Survey to see how many respondents identified as Latter-day Saints. He found that the number had slipped to 0.9% but noted that number has been at about 1%, or essentially flat, for a decade.

“With a larger sample size we could get more precise and possibly detect a real COVID effect on church size and growth,” he wrote, “but … the things associated with COVID such as remote church and the political divisiveness over vaccines and protocols don’t appear to have had a big enough effect to discernibly change the number of people willing to self-identify as Latter-day Saints.”

These survey numbers, of course, don’t address the pandemic’s impact on attendance in the pews, activity in the home or allegiances in the heart.

Wheat & Tares blogger Dave B., for one, is convinced that politics and the pandemic have led to fissures in the religion’s ranks.

“There are still lots of good Latter-day Saints doing nice things and saying nice things, supporting those in need of friendship and love, mourning with those who mourn,” he wrote last month. “But between COVID and overheated, polarizing politics, the fellowship and good feelings that often defined LDS wards have been strained. Some wards are breaking apart, or at least losing a few families who chose to attend elsewhere or simply not attend.”

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