LDS Church can’t hide behind religion in Huntsman’s tithing lawsuit, lawyers argue

Deferring to church autonomy, they warn, might unfairly advantage larger, top-down faith groups.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church Administration Building is photographed in downtown Salt Lake City in 2023. New filings have appeared in the James Huntsman tithing case.

New legal salvos in James Huntsman’s fraud lawsuit against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are attacking arguments that the Utah-based faith is legally shielded by religious protections.

Invoking church autonomy to let the global religion avoid a reckoning in court over Huntsman’s assertions he was misled by its top leaders about tithing would jeopardize other religions and threatens the idea that faith groups are equally subject to civil law, warn the latest briefs at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

And under California’s legal definition of fraud, scholars and civil rights advocates contend that federal judges can and should decide Huntsman’s case without delving improperly into religious doctrines or beliefs, including the Latter-day Saint practice and teaching of tithing.

“Murder would still be murder if committed by a group that deems it a sacrament,” says one of the latest friend-of-the-court briefs filed Friday in support of Huntsman’s lawsuit. “And fraud is still fraud if clothed in religious vestments.”

The closely watched case, filed in 2021, is headed to a fresh round of oral arguments in September before the appeals court after the case was reinstated last August. The church successfully challenged that 2-1 decision, winning a rehearing last month before the full appeals court.

In a sign of what could be at stake legally, attorneys for a variety of third-party advocacy groups, faith traditions, schools and nonprofits across the country have weighed in with their own amicus briefs, on both sides.

Faith vs. ‘neutral principles’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) City Creek Center in Salt Lake City is shown in 2021. Funding for the mall is at the center of James Huntsman's tithing lawsuit.

A brother of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, James Huntsman, now a Salt Lake City resident, resigned his church membership in 2020 and sued the faith in March 2021.

His case, filed in Los Angeles when he lived in California, asserts that Latter-day Saint leaders, including then-President Gordon B. Hinckley, misled members about how tithing was being used by saying it went only to charitable purposes, while at the same time spending “earnings” off those contributions on commercial ventures, namely $1.4 billion on City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Huntsman, a film-distribution company owner, is seeking to recover $5 million of his own tithing plus interest and penalties.

At least five similar federal cases have since been filed by active and former Latter-day Saints, alleging they were also misled on tithing.

With the case now on appeal, lawyers for the church and supporters have pressed the view that interpreting key pieces of Huntsman’s fraud allegations — including what motivated him to donate and what Hinckley may have meant when he spoke about tithing from the pulpit — would illegally and unconstitutionally put courts in charge of deciding internal questions of faith.

Religious freedom advocates and a group of 11 major faiths have backed the church’s contention that religious issues are wrapped up in almost every aspect of Huntsman’s arguments, meaning that the First Amendment’s protections of religious freedom and church autonomy bar legal review and should halt his challenge.

New parties weigh in

Among the latest parties joining the case on Huntsman’s side are Interfaith Alliance, a national group of faith group based in Washington, D.C.; Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which advocates for the civil rights of LGBTQ communities; the National Women’s Law Center, pushing for gender justice; and the Sikh Coalition, a Sikh American advocacy group.

Attorneys for the Salt Lake City-headquartered church, these groups assert in a joint filing, are seeking unfair and unworkably wide protections in advance of judges rehearing the case.

The groups argue that civil courts are obliged to hold the church and other religious organizations to the same laws as others in such legal disputes and not to defer to church authority solely because Huntsman’s allegations touch on a religious practice.

“If the church’s legal theory were correct,” their lawyers, based in Durham, N.C., argue, “religious organizations could insist that they were free from all possible liability, as long as there was some religious component or label to their conduct.”

Too much deference by civil courts to religious authority threatens to treat faiths with different rules, they argue, with the potential to favor more traditional, top-down religions over their members and others with less-conventional faith views. That, in turn, risks creating doubt about the fairness of their operations and deterring donations, “while also depriving those who have been injured by religious entities of a venue to seek legal remedies.”

In a separate filing, legal scholar Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, argues that Huntsman’s lawsuit can be resolved under long-standing “neutral principles” in U.S. law that don’t need to involve questions of religion.

“Churches,” Tuttle wrote, “have never received a blanket exemption from secular law.” And courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion “merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property.”

A neutral-principles approach, the professor argues, “frees civil courts from the danger of entanglement in church affairs and better protects the religious liberty of denominations and congregations alike.”