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Going After the Mormon Church’s Tax Exempt Status Is the Wrong Strategy 8 November 2008

Posted by Todd in 2008 Elections, Commentary, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church, Religion.
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I’ve been getting a lot of people directing me to the Mormons Stole Our Rights web site, starting a campaign to take away the LDS Church’s tax-exempt status for the participation in the Proposition 8 battle. This is the wrong approach. Let me explain:

I’m especially pissed at the Mormons for two reasons: 1) it was the religion of my childhood and I feel betrayed and shunned all over again; 2) because they financed at least 1/2 of the campaign and provided the lion’s share of the ground forces for prop 8. So I get the rage and the need to strike back.

However, I’m a stickler for free speech and free expression: As the law now stands, the Mormon church did NOT break the law; neither did the catholic church; nor the evangelical churches who campaigned (and who held that horrifying rally in San Diego a few days before the election).

There is a legal problem here that we realistically need to account for if we are to hold the LDS Church accountable (as well as the Catholics and all those Evangelical churches): The Mormon church did not break any law. It’s within their rights according to the IRS code to advocate publicly and spend money to advocate for political issues. Like all churches/non-profits, they are only barred from campaigning for candidates.  The website “Mormons Stole Our Rights” is wrong on the legal facts (it ignores subsection (h) of the tax code they site) and this will lose in any court in America. Ask any tax attorney and they’ll spell it out for you.  Even more problematically, the Mormon church itself donated exactly ZERO funds to this campaign anyway and asked its members to donate money; this is also completely within its rights as the law now stands.

The more legally sound approach is to begin a campaign consisting of one of the two of the following:

a) demand that churches not be considered special kinds of non-profits and that their finances must be made public, just like non-religious non-profits must.

b) remove nonprofit status from all religious organizations. Make them all pay taxes on the money they use to advocate for issues, just like all private citizens must (we have to pay taxes on the money we donate to political causes).  Religions have only had nonprofit status since the 1950s. This isn’t enshrined anywhere in stone.

There is also a third issue to consider:

c) another way to go might be to see if it could be made illegal for California propositions to be funded by out of state interests (see prop 10 as another example); I suspect that may come into conflict with the interstate commerce clause, however, and would require federal legislation.

In some ways, this nascent campaign seems to seek to punish the Mormons for expressing their beliefs and campaigning for them. That is, on its face, anti-democratic and the precise wrong way to go about addressing our the role of the LDS Church in this past election. I’m all in favor of the protests at the Mormon temples, the intense criticism in the public sphere that Mormonism has been getting over this issue, etc. That is what free speech is for: Engaging against wrong-headed and harmful speech and countering it. But rather than seeking to punish an individual or organization for doing what is most fundamental to a democracy, we should be seeking to change people’s minds and convincing the majority of Californians that they are wrong ethically and democratically to enshrine a second class citenzhip for homosexuals in their constitution.

Let’s face it: The No on 8 campaign was completely unprepared for this battle, and the homos of California were complacent and assumed that there was no way this could pass. By the time No on 8 made the staffing change in the campaign, it was too little too late.  There is much work to be done to overcome the homophobia and no institutionalized inequality in our Constitution. I fear that this specific line of attack is the wrong one, unless done very carefully and with full understanding and respect for the law and for the right to free speech and expression.



1. Ann - 8 November 2008

Excellent suggestions. I prefer open disclosure to loss of tax exemption.

2. libhomo - 8 November 2008

Actually, it is a violation of the IRS code for churches to spend a significant amount of money on political causes. At different times, that has been interpreted as 5% or 10% of revenues.

Of course, this code is seldom enforced.

3. Todd - 8 November 2008


That’s an interesting fact that I didn’t know. Thanks. In this case, that’s not really germane in that the Mormon church had its members donate the funds directly to the Yes on 8 campaign and the church itself donated zero funds.

4. wry catcher - 9 November 2008

I love this post. I love that you have much passion tempered by such a rational brain. It is EXACTLY what we need right now (viz. our recent landslide pres election). I’m totally inspired by the sheer reason and realistic, pragmatic possibilities you have outlined. I hope you keep writing in this vein. Have you considered taking a leadership role in this? Seriously. You’re perfect for it, in ways people don’t know they need until they hear it (eg, Obama).

5. Seth R. - 9 November 2008

I’m one of those active Mormons who opposed Prop 8 and blogged to that effect publicly.

I think Todd is right that the idea that the LDS Church can be stripped of its tax exemptions is merely a pipe dream. You aren’t going to get anywhere on that score.

However, I don’t think a lot of the protesting is going to have much impact either.

Keep something in mind when dealing with Mormons. We have a bit of a persecution complex, and we come from a long line of VERY stubborn people. You would not believe how long we can stonewall on an issue out of sheer spite – let alone when we think we have Truth on our side.

It’s like one of those mules that, when you yank on its bridle, will pull back and sit on its haunches for HOURS, no matter how hard you pull. In fact, the pulling is exactly what causes the mule to resist even more.

We Mormons are very much like this. Back in the 1960s, the LDS Church came under relentless, intense, and very public criticism for its stance on blacks and the Priesthood. Throughout the 60s there was an unending barrage of criticism.

And it had ZERO effect. None. Goose-eggs.

Eventually, most people in the Civil Rights movement gave up on the LDS Church as a bad job and moved on to other things.

Then halfway through the 1970s, with no outside prodding whatsoever (there was almost zero pressure on the issue that particular year – and had not been for several years) – bang! an official declaration making the Priesthood universal.

This is how we Mormons operate. You get in our face and piss us off, and you’ll get nowhere. We take the prize at stonewalling and waiting people out. The more angry and shrill the protests, the more we stonewall.

And frankly, we’re used to the yelling. We get unhinged Evangelical street preachers with sets of Mormon undergarments hanging from their belts yelling at us outside Temple Square on a regular basis. If the gay community wants to lump themselves in with that crowd in Mormon minds, by all means repeat the sort of spectacle we witnessed outside the LA Temple. My people will be more than happy to write you off as just the latest installment of crazed haters, tune you out, and carry on as before. We’ve had plenty of practice with the Evangelicals. The same skills will apply to homosexuals.

That said, reports I heard of the SALT LAKE protest are much more encouraging. The protest there was much more calm and respectful (and impressively attended – about 3,000 people I heard). If you want to rely on outdated 1960s protest models, that’s certainly the best way to do it. But the LA Temple protest was, frankly, an embarrassment to the California gay community. And the frequent blog posts I’m reading about how “it’s open season on Mormons” and beating up the “next pair of missionaries who knock on my door” and how “anything goes” from now on concerning Mormons, are just going to play into the Mormon narrative of being persecuted by hateful people. Some of my fellow Mormons are even getting a perverse sort of pleasure out of how pissed-off you guys are right now.

The gay community needs to figure it out fast that their rhetoric is over-the-top and is not advancing their agenda with the LDS Church in the least.

You would not believe how long we can wait-out an opposing group.

Just ask the Evangelicals. They’ve been working on us for about 100 years now and have zilch to show for it.

6. Shannon - 11 November 2008

The more I think about it (as the days pass my inner voice-of-reason is finally making itself heard above my raw emotions), the more I think that allowing this to be framed in terms of the gays vs. churches is bad strategy. The idea that gay marriage threatens church practices or tax status was a LIE, but one that we’re sort of feeding into right now.

On the other hand I do think the Mormon hierarchy’s involvement in this issue crossed a real line. I mean reading this — http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/why-the-lds-att.html#more — it’s pretty scary.

7. Todd - 11 November 2008

I agree. But I also think it’s perfectly acceptable to protest churches and to engage them in their hateful, wrong-headed, fairy-tale believing beliefs. I think we often dance around religion too afraid to look them in the face and say they’re wrong. A church has a right to its beliefs, but not a right to be free or exempt from criticism and engagement. Too many issues are being fought and won by religious wingnuts in America because it’s socially unacceptable to argue with them.

gay marriage
sex education
science curriculum
HIV/AIDS education, prevention, treatment
[funny they’re mostly all about sex]

The Republicans got in bed with the Christian Right in the late 1970s and are making the rest of the country lie in it with them.

The Mormon church bankrolled a massive effort to disenfranchise me and the people I love. It is absurd for them to think they are somehow exempt from being protested because they were within their rights to do so.

I do agree with you Shannon that strategically it is much more tricky because it feeds into the Christianists’ and especially the Mormons’ persecution complex (which is vexing in the extreme when you talk to them) and gives them something else to cry about (even though they are wrong on the way free speech and democracy work).

8. Holy Hyrax - 13 November 2008

>Too many issues are being fought and won by religious wingnuts in America because it’s socially unacceptable to argue with them.

Last time I checked, Abortion was legal. Sex Education is taught in schools (including AIDS prevention. Science Curriculum teaches Evolution.

Where exactly are they winning?

9. Todd - 13 November 2008


Hopefully you’re right and we’re hearing the death rattle of the Christian Right’s stranglehold on the public sphere. When Christians can no longer overturn science curriculum anywhere in the U.S. over the work of experts and scientists; when ‘abstinence only’ education is no longer the sanctioned policy in the U.S.; when AIDS prevention and treatment and research is once again funded here in the U.S. (and not just in Africa); when courts and voters stop whittling away at a woman’s right to chose; when gays and lesbians and transgenders are full and equal citizens across the entire country…then I think the Christian Right will have lost.

10. let us come and reason togehter Isaiah 1:18 - 21 November 2008

Why all this hate ? As someone said earlier, we mormons at good at persevering persecution. It’s been part of our history through the ages and since the begining and expect it. If you have issues with the support conservatives are giving then you cannot act out hatingly. You need to look at things clearly through the law and approach it like this writer does. Also, if you atack a group, how do you expect them to act ? specially if they believe (as far as we are concerned “know”) that they are on the right ? Hate will not work. Patience, understanding, just as you would want us to understand you.

There is an old saying, based on scripture but not sure if it is quoted or just adopted from scriptural prnciple, ” Hate the sin, Love the sinner.” I hate hearing of any “christian” group acting in such hateful manners. But the church nor the members acted hatefully. They supported what they believed in. They were better organized and funded. I read that article and the thought of bishops asking about prop 8 in recommend meetings is scary and I am against such low tactics.

None the less, from both gays, christians and everyone in between, we are all americans who love america. Let us come together to reason about this earthly matter of legislation in the language of law and leave all other venacular outside this debate. To play the game you need to speak the language. The better someone knows the rules the more likely they will win.

Let us not villinize each other, even if we christians believe that homosexuality is a sin, Christ none the less died to save everyone. Your salvation is your choice, but Christ still loves you. Your agency (mormon term for free will) has been something that God has always allowed you to have. All christians should respect that right aswell.

This is a call to all people on both sides for reason, compassion, understanding and a willingness to speak within the constraints of legistical venacular, leave hate and religious talk outside.

I know I have used religious talk just now, but that was not to support Prop 8, but to help any christian who might read this to leave their “righteous” hate at the door.

11. awry - 25 November 2008

You have some legal inaccuracies here.

Tax-exempt nonprofits are indeed forbidden from engaging in “substantial” lobbying for or against legislation.

Section 501(c)(3) describes organizations that are exempt from paying taxes, and reads:

“Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable … purposes … no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Moreover, subsection (h) DOES NOT apply to churches. See IRC Sec. 501(h)(5)(A) (“For purposes of paragraph (3) an organization is a disqualified organization if it is … described in section 170(b)(1)(A)(i) (relating to churches)”).

“Substantial” advocacy is a question of fact to be determined by the I.R.S. or a relevant court. In terms of financial support, one frequently cited number is 5% of the organization’s budget. Substantial advocacy, however, may also be judged in terms of the organization’s activities and other non-financial metrics. See also I.R.S. Publication 1828 (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p1828.pdf).

So, actually yes, the Mormon church (as well as the Catholic church), probably did violate the law, and could technically have their exempt status revoked. This is of course unlikely under the current administration.

Prop. 8 really demonstrates that tax exemptions to churches can legitimately lead to excessive entanglement issues. It is appalling that a tax-exempt church can appropriate public resources to lobby for the enactment of its religious agenda into public law.

The million dollar question is, what solution will lead to less entanglement, without running up against free speech and free exercise rights. The tensions among these first amendment provisions are nothing new, and reconciling them is no easy task.

12. awry - 25 November 2008

Also, most states have granted tax exemptions to nonprofits from the very beginning of American history. There were no federal tax exemptions until the 16th Amendment was passed in 1913, because there were no federal taxes until that year. As long as the federal income tax has existed, however, churches and charitable organizations have been exempt from paying.

Perhaps with your reference to the 50s you are thinking of the Johnson Amendment, which was passed in 1954, and for the first time prohibited tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political advocacy.

13. Main Street Plaza » Sunday in Outer Blogness: broken promises Edition! - 20 October 2010

[…] As for reactions to the election itself, Equality sums up the prop. 8 folks’ induction into the hall of shame. A lot of people are rethinking their relationship with the church: here, here, here, here, and here. Others are trying to figure out what to do next: here, here, and here. […]

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