Monthly Archives: January 2017

Attacking the LDS Church’s Tax Exempt Status

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LGBT political advocate Fred Karger has threatened to file a complaint against the “Mormon Church,” otherwise known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the IRS once he uncovers the Church’s “vast business holdings and all of the secret political activities.”[1]  He hopes to get the tax exempt status of the Church revoked.[2] To assist with this, he has launched a TV ad campaign and has put up a new Website looking for tips and documents that will support his cause.

So, as I understand it, once he finds evidence of a crime—because he is sure there has been a crime, he will act on it and report the Church to the IRS, which he is sure will revoke the Church’s tax exempt status.

This sounds a lot like when he accused the Church of election fraud in 2008. The Church filed some of its reports with the State of California using the wrong forms. They gave the State the correct amount of in-kind donations, but in the last two weeks of the election failed to put it on the daily form that is required.

To be clear, they told the State the correct number, but just put in on the wrong form, which had a different due date.[3]

Even though the state law in question specifically states it doesn’t deal with election fraud[4]; even though the Church corrected the paperwork and paid their fine for late notification; even though the State of California recognized that the instructions were not clear so they changed them after this incident, it didn’t stop Fred Karger from crying fraud. In an article in the Huffington Post he claimed,

“The FPPC prosecuted the Church, and after an 18 month investigation, found the Mormon Church guilty on 13 counts of election fraud. The Church plead guilty and paid a fine.”[5]

This isn’t even possible because the FPPC does not deal with election fraud and specificially says so on its Website.[6] To put it another way, if it involves the FPPC, it isn’t election fraud. If it were election fraud, it would go to Investigative Services in the Secretary of State’s office, which it didn’t in this case.

For a more in depth discussion on this, see

If you want more discussion on Prop 8 and Mormons, see

Since that time Fred Karger seems to be looking for other avenues to punish the Church. This Mormon tips ad campaign seems to be his new project.

In reading the comment section of articles about Fred’s new project, I have seen quite a bit of confusion from others regarding politics and a church’s tax exempt status.

So let’s review the information about politics and all tax exempt organizations including churches.

All tax exempt organizations, including churches, are allowed to be politically active.

For those that missed it, let me repeat that. All tax exempt organizations, including churches, are allowed to be politically active.

Some tax exempt organizations even have political lobbying as one of their main activities. Think of organizations like the Sierra Club, the NRA, Planned Parenthood, AARP, GLAD, National Association for Transgender Rights, and even Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Lobbying is a big part of their purpose for existing. Can you imagine the uproar if the NRA or Sierra Club were not allowed to be politically involved?

So long as they qualify under the IRS substantial part test, it is legal to be political. The substantial part test maintains an organization cannot spend a substantial part of its total budget on political activities. While it is unclear what “substantial part” means, most organizations use a 20% rule of thumb.[7] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an international organization with millions of members. Given the Church’s low level of political involvement, even Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the leading advocacy organization on the issue, does not see any risk of the LDS Church violating this rule.[8]

What churches and other 501(c)3 organizations are not allowed to do is engage in political campaigning for a particular candidate.[9] There has been some recent controversy on this. More on that later. First let’s talk about the tax exempt nature of churches.

The Supreme Court debated this issue in 1970. In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 the tax exemption for churches is fair because tax exemption is a benefit not solely given to religious groups, but includes groups like schools and nonprofits. They made the following findings:

  1. The First Amendment tolerates neither governmentally established religion nor governmental interference with religion. Pp. 667-672.
  2. The legislative purpose of tax exemptions is not aimed at establishing, sponsoring, or supporting religion. Pp. 672-674.
  3. The tax exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, far less than taxation of churches would entail, and it restricts the fiscal relationship between them, thus tending to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other. Pp. 674-676.
  4. Freedom from taxation for two centuries has not led to an established church or religion, and, on the contrary, has helped to guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief. Pp. 676-680.[10]

Chief Justice Burger even addressed the common complaint that churches should only be tax exempt as they feed the poor and do other good works. He wrote:

We find it unnecessary to justify the tax exemption on the social welfare services or “good works” that some churches perform for parishioners and others — family counseling, aid to the elderly and the infirm, and to children. Churches vary substantially in the scope of such services; programs expand or contract according to resources and need. As public-sponsored programs enlarge, private aid from the church sector may diminish. The extent of social services may vary, depending on whether the church serves an urban or rural, a rich or poor constituency. To give emphasis to so variable an aspect of the work of religious bodies would introduce an element of governmental evaluation and standards as to the worth of particular social welfare programs, thus producing a kind of continuing day-to-day relationship which the policy of neutrality seeks to minimize. Hence, the use of a social welfare yardstick as a significant element to qualify for tax exemption could conceivably give rise to confrontations that could escalate to constitutional dimensions.[11]

Now let’s look at the restrictions. As I already said, churches and other tax exempt organizations may not campaign for a particular candidate. But, the ban on churches supporting candidates is not as old as, and is less settled than, the tax exempt status of churches. In 1954, then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas put forward a new law that made it so tax exempt organizations could not support specific political candidates. This not only affected churches, but all 501(c)3 non-profit organizations. There have been several recently who have lobbied for a repeal of this law claiming it violates the first amendment. Many believe that it was put forward in retaliation for the support a non-religious non-profit organization that gave support to Johnson’s political opponent.[12] There has been some recent discussion as to whether the law is constitutional, but it has already survived several court challenges and is unlikely to change.

To summarize:

All non-profit organizations including churches are allowed to be politically involved. Under current law, the only two restrictions they have are:

  1. They can’t publicly support a political candidate.
  2. They can’t spend a substantial part of their budget on politics. This is currently interpreted to mean spending more than 20% of their total budget. Total budget includes everything they do.

Other than those two restrictions, they are free to support or oppose any political cause they please. This can be national, state, or local politics and is not limited to items of a religious nature.

Finally, there is one more claim that Mr. Fred Karger makes on his Website that we need to address. He states:

The Mormon Church’s business holdings, estimated to be nearly $1 trillion, are run as tax free enterprises owned outright by the Church. Thus the Mormon Church does not likely pay any federal, state or local taxes on its profits from all its holdings.

This is simply false. In 1991 April General conference, Gordon B. Hinckley said the following:

I repeat, the combined income from all of these business interests is relatively small and would not keep the Church going for longer than a very brief period. I add, also, that these commercial properties are tax-paying entities who meet their tax obligations under the laws of the areas where they are located.

Again, all such commercial properties are taxed under the government entities where they are located. Not only do they pay property taxes, but also income taxes on any profits. So it is with all of the commercial operations of the Church.[13]

To summarize:

  1. Churches can legally be involved in elections and political issues involving gay marriage, marijuana use, euthanasia, housing, gun control, missile defense, global warming, taxes, zoning changes, school bonds, or any other issues they desire. Demands for revoking tax exempt status shows a lack of understanding of the law.
  2. Churches, under the Johnson Amendment law, may not campaign for a particular candidate. There is controversy over the legality of this law, but it has been upheld in more than one court decision.
  3. The Supreme Court has ruled that churches are not to be judged for tax exemption based on feeding the poor or doing other good works. That would create a situation of government monitoring churches, create excessive entanglement, and would violate the constitution.
  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pays taxes on all of its commercial properties such as Deseret Book, Bonneville International Corporation, and Utah Property Management Associates. This includes property taxes and income taxes.
  5. Fred Karger, the person heading up this campaign to strip the Church of its tax exempt status by soliciting questionably obtained documents, does not have a good track record for understanding the law, or representing what it means.

There is no risk of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka The Mormon Church) losing tax exempt status no matter what political cause it may engage in. Political speech is all constitutionally protected. This issue has already gone to the Supreme Court and they have ruled on it. This recent campaign by Fred Karger is nothing more than Don Quixote attacking windmills.


[1] Quote from Fred’s recent Television commercial which is airing in Utah this month.










[11] Page 674



D&C 134: Of Governments and Laws with Spencer W. McBride

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In November 2014, Smithsonian Magazine named Joseph Smith as the most influential American religious figure of all time.

This founder of the Mormon religion also ran for president of the United States during the last year of his life. Though he left a much smaller imprint on the political scene than the religious one, there is one document in our current canonized scripture that is dedicated to enumerating LDS beliefs regarding governments and laws.

Ironically, though Joseph Smith would refer to it during his lifetime, he didn’t actually author it.  What is now D&C 134 was written in 1835 by Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon and was accepted by common consent in a conference held in Smith’s absence. No leader then or now referred to it as direct revelation from God but rather a declaration of principles.

The document proved highly adaptable as it was used to protest and support the US government. It was also used in petitions to the US Congress for redress from Missouri persecutions.

As part of the Revelations in Context series, McBride shares his insights into this document and its reception and use by early Mormon Apostle Lyman Wight.

Spencer W. McBride believes that members will benefit from the study of the past. He maintains that “Mormons will better understand their own religion if they have a deeper understanding of American history, and Americans will better understand their past if they understand the smaller aspect of the Mormon world.”

To access the material referred to in this episode, check out LDS Perspectives.

Tattoos Today

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Ask any Mormon why he or she doesn’t have a tattoo and more than likely you will get the quick reaction from 1 Corinthians 6:19 that our bodies are a temple.  But in my experience in counseling with and teaching young people, this phrase may need further explanation to help them grasp the spirit, and not only the letter, of this law.  In the Mormonism of their world, with the infusion of converts and people who have left and rejoined the church, seeing tattoos in church is no longer a shocking thing like it once was.  More and more of our young people seem to be toying with the idea and wondering what is so wrong about getting a tattoo?  After all, I’ve seen many a lower back tattoo that looks pretty similar to the sun on the outside of the Nauvoo temple.  On our LDS temples we have words, symbols, celestial bodies, nature elements, and artistry all pointing to significant messages and themes for that temple.  I have often received the question from a well-intentioned youth about why it is so different to adorn the body with the same kind of artistry?  Why can we adorn our temples, inside and out, with art and décor, but not our bodies?  Perhaps like all answers in the church, the truth comes in layers and “our bodies are temples” is only layer #1.  The following are the reasons I have personally given to help the youth of today understand why the rule exists.

Getting a tattoo has been discouraged even from before President Hinckley’s talk in 2000, but once the damage is done, does not limit one’s access to the temple, the ability to go on most missions, or even limit one’s career serving in the church, as made visually evident by Al Fox the famous “Tattooed Mormon”.  Tattoos are mainstream now, like a woman’s pair of earrings.  This leads some, particularly the youth, to wonder if earrings are allowed because it is “normal”, perhaps the same will come of tattoos.  One can hardly get through a question and answer session with a youth group without someone asking why tattoos are even wrong at all.  Their generation isn’t one of hippies getting tattoos with a side of LSD and anti-establishment.  Their generation is one where tattoos can be artistic, meaningful, and even spiritual, and the older generation’s warnings seem to no longer be relatable.  This requires us as leaders to better explain the guidelines regarding the body in the For the Strength of the Youth Pamphlet in a way that makes sense for their generation.

Young man getting a temporary tattoo at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Recently, Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake Tribune brought up the tattoo question with the unusual situation that Polynesian Culture Center workers find themselves in.  They go to work with their tribal tattoos on display and draw temporary tattoos on Mormon tourists only to have to completely cover them up the next day in class at BYU-Hawaii.  Yet both institutions are owned by the church.  There are a handful of other examples of where the line gets muddled.  My devout LDS grandmother tattooed her makeup on so she can be (horrifyingly) ready to go with purple eye shadow any time day or night.  Utah Mormons, statistically, are also not strangers to nose jobs or breast enhancements.  There are children and adults who get tattoos of relevant medical information to save their lives.  These ethical scenarios help us further understand what it means to abstain from tattoos with more depth and thought.  So what could some of the reasons be that we are counseled to not tattoo our bodies?

Reason #1 – We Change

One reason not to get tattoos is because of the simple fact of who we are today is not going to be who we are tomorrow.  So although NSYNC was the most important thing to me in the 8th grade, it would be unwise to get a tattoo of Justin Timberlake’s face on my bicep.  On temples the message is always at the highest level.  Messages about God, progression, eternal realities, and glory lift the soul and enlighten the mind.  Most tattoos cannot claim such.  Tattoos when we look back, for the most part, reminds us of a certain time in our life.  Like we are a passport with a bunch of stamps on it.  President Hinckley talked about this when he promised that one day we would regret getting a tattoo at some point later on[1], when we had changed or grown.  The most unique doctrine in the church is that the church as a whole changes, its alive, and that we individually change too.  Tattoos then would limit our ability to feel like we can move in a whole new direction.   As Jack London says, “Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.”  And though there’s nothing wrong with an interesting past, the point of the gospel is that the person we were yesterday doesn’t have to be the person we are tomorrow.  In the church we should also never judge someone who comes into our congregation with some questionable stamps on their passport.  We all have the markings of our past upon us, some are just more visible than others, and we all come to church for the opportunity to look forward and not backwards.

Reason #2 – Societal Precedent

Often in the gospel we find rules applying to some culture at some time that is not applied to all cultures.  There’s nothing wrong with that, we have scriptures from thousands of years before the birth of Christ and if the church is truly a living church then hopefully a lot has changed since then in order for God to be real to us today.  Even within one time frame and culture sometimes the rules change.  To the Anti-Nephi-Lehis the right thing to do was to bury their weapons, and for the next generation the right thing to do was to take them up again.  Mormonism has always had the stance that rules, practices, and procedures change and by studying the scriptures as a whole one can come to an understanding of the “whys” and not just the “hows”.  So in some cultures, tattoos are a part of community rituals and family culture where the paternal and maternal lines are printed on the children as a means of heritage and like a living family tree.  Do you think God condemns such as sinners before the law?  I highly doubt it.

But what about American culture?  In American culture what are tattoos about?  Attention.  Vanity.  And in that vein, tattoos in America aren’t given the cultural value that is given to our tattooed brothers and sisters in the Polynesian Islands.  The cultural value and artistry is beautiful in context of their history and something that is praised at the PCC.  But even with such a beautiful history recorded on skin, modern day members of the Polynesian Islands are still softly encouraged to let the practice go, though some Mormons leaders choose to continue the practice and are not relieved from leadership positions for doing so.  In an address to the youth Morgan Sa Mataalii said: “When I was a young man, my dad talked to me about the tribal band tattoos that are common… .  Dad said, ‘Don’t participate in any of that.  You’re a child of God before you’re Samoan, before you’re a big, tough, guy from the islands.’  That is something I have always remembered[2].”  Tattoos can be valued as a part of a cultural tradition while still moving forward and recognizing that not all traditions are relevant today.  There are more ways to tell stories, link families, and record genealogies today than there were in the past.  So under this reason, the explanation for why tattoos are bad is not because it is always bad in every situation, but because in our culture it is about drawing vain attention, like adding blaring music to outside of the temple to get people to look.  This kind of attention distracts from the essence of who we are instead of enhancing it, and the cultural necessities for tattoos are no longer as relevant as they once were.

Reason #3 – It’s What’s on the Inside

Another solid reason for why tattoos will probably always be discouraged is because it’s the heart that really counts.  That’s why we are here.  So as much as it is nice to have a tattoo that says “family”, that family would probably want that time and money more than the tattoo.  Having a cross tattoo doesn’t necessarily mean anything to Jesus at the judgment bar.  As uplifting as the message could be, it will never be more important than the inner commitment to it.  We want so bad as human beings to find meaning in our lives, and when we find it, we want other people to know about it.  But the message in the New Testament over and over is that God honors those who quietly give, privately pray, and serve without any need of honor or reward.  What we do in secret will be rewarded in public as it says in Matthew 6.  So even if tattoos become even more mainstream than they are today, ultimately, they will never matter more than the journey going on inside.  And because the church is in the business of souls, the message will always be let’s focus on the inner spiritual path.  God doesn’t write his law upon our bodies, but he says in Jeremiah 33, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God.”

Reason #4 – Body and Spirit

Mormonism is somewhat unique in religious philosophy in that they believe that both body and spirit are made of matter, and that both continue after death.  This belief is at the base of many Mormon practices, and why we have so many rules dealing with our bodies.  In some philosophies it is the spirit that is lasting, and the body is something to be subdued.  In other philosophies, it is the brain that consists our sense of self and nothing more.  But in Mormonism our relationship with our bodies continue, and what is the point of getting a nice shiny new body in the afterlife if we haven’t figured out how to deal with it?  And in that afterlife, will the tattoos we get in this life continue?  Probably not.  So in this life we practice this relationship we have with our bodies as we constantly nourish body and spirit.  We exercise, eat healthy, pray, meditate, and our bodies become part of our very essence.  If that is the case, in the eternal perspective, tattoos become quite meaningless in this eternal relationship we have with our bodies.


Often in Mormonism we get caught up with the list of what is right and what is wrong.  But that line of questioning only gets us so far.  The more important question is why is it right and why is it wrong.  Only in that way can one both understand and transcend the law, and its certainly the only way to read the scriptures with any level of consistency.  The rule isn’t to never get a tattoo or suffer eternal hellfire.  The real question to ask ourselves is why?  Why do I want this tattoo?  How would this tattoo enhance my beliefs?  How would this tattoo affect my relationship with my body?  How would this tattoo be a blessing to me in my old age?  How would this tattoo affect how my soul?  Through these deeper questions one can navigate more effectively when a tattoo is or is not appropriate rather than view this issue as entirely black and white.  There are no grounds for discrimination against those who have tattoos; we don’t know the reasons why they did so or their story.  But we should be introspective and serious about such a permanent decision for ourselves, and whether our reasoning truly holds up or if we just really, really like Justin Timberlake.

[1] Gordon B. Hinckley.  “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother”.  Ensign, October 2000.

[2] Morgan Sa Mataalii.  “Small and Simple Things”.  Liahona, June 2011.

Brittney Hartley lives in Boise, ID with her husband and two children.  She has a Bachelors degree in History and Social Studies and taught History, Government, and Philosophy at the high school level. Her blog,, focuses on the philosophical foundations of Mormonism. She also informally works with those in faith crisis find intellectual room for their faith and works with interfaith groups in Boise.  You can reach her at [email protected].


Of Papyri and Mummies with John Gee

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Laura Harris Hales of LDS Perspectives Podcast interviews Dr. John Gee about the history of Joseph Smith’s papyri.

Dr. Gee has studied the papyri and the Book of Abraham for over thirty years, yet finds there are still many mysteries still to be unraveled.

He shares with listeners fascinating details regarding what we know about Joseph Smith’s purchase of the papyri in Ohio in 1835 to the Church’s acquisition of its remaining fragments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late sixties.

Along the way he shares some interesting stories about the Book of Abraham translation, its teachings, and how Mother Smith used the papyri and mummies to provide for herself as a widow.

He also sheds light on issues regarding the provenance (where it came from) of the Book of Abraham and how its teachings on the pre-existence proliferated throughout the Church in the years after Joseph Smith’s death.

Be sure to check the links to books written by Dr. Gee on both of these topics at LDS Perspectives.



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Lehi’s Dream by Greg Olsen

There is a battle raging for the hearts and minds of those who have sincere questions about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, when many search for answers on-line they are more likely to find the mocking of the tall and spacious building than the scholarly answers we provide at FairMormon.  We need your help to change this.


It only costs $25 a year and as a member your input and insights will be valuable resources in helping to improve FairMormon as a safe place to find answers.  We are asking you to help us on the front lines as we provide ammunition needed to defend our faith.  This ammunition comes in the form of constructive scholarly responses.

Simply click on this link, “Add to the cart” and follow the steps to make the purchase.  As additional encouragement, Sustaining Members get a 20% discount at the FairMormon Bookstore, and FairMormon Conference Tickets.

As a bonus, if you join today we will send you a free copy of Michael Ash’s eBook, Bamboozled by the CES Letter. This insightful and sometimes humorous book explains why many of the complex issues presented by the CES letter are fundamentally flawed and do not accurately represent either Mormonism or the only logical interpretations of the data.

Please think about starting the year off as a 2017 Sustaining Member of FairMormon and becoming a defender of the faith.


Tom Hatton

Director of Development at FairMormon

Thomas Eastwood Hatton can trace his Mormon roots back five generations to the hills of eastern Kentucky. He has a degree in Family Financial Planning and Counseling from Brigham Young University and owns an investment company. Tom and his wife Julianne are the parents of four adult children and nine grandchildren. They are rabid Wildcat fans and contributors to FairMormon.