On the EDge: Revoke church tax exemptions

Photo by bowie15 / iStock / Getty Images Plus; St. George News

OPINION – I really don’t care if you are a Mormon, Muslim, Methodist or Pastafarian, if you cross that thin, gray line between church and state, it should cost you your tax exemption with the Internal Revenue Service.

Despite repeated denials from headquarters on Temple Square, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is mixing religion and politics, again.

This time, church elders are targeting ballot measures in three states that would legalize the recreational use of cannabis.

The First Presidency, comprised of Thomas S. Monson, leader and prophet of the LDS church, Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, his two top men, signed a letter that is to be read by congregational leaders at weekly church meetings in California, Arizona and Nevada where the legalization issue goes before voters in three weeks.

The letter urges church members to vote against the measures because of “the risks that marijuana use poses to brain development in youth” and adds concerns because “accessibility of recreational marijuana in the home is also a danger to children.” It adds, “We urge Church members to let their voices be heard in opposition to the legalization of recreational marijuana use.”

Read more: LDS Church asks members to vote against legalizing recreational marijuana, assisted suicide

It’s cut and dried – no pot for you, even if legalization required that you must roll your joints or stuff your bong behind some version of a Zion Curtain that would protect curious young eyes from witnessing the preparation of cannabis for recreational or medicinal purposes.

This campaign is in direct opposition to the law that allows churches and religious organizations to treat April 15 as just another day as they skip blithely through a tax-free existence.

The IRS is very clear about this.

In fact, it goes to great lengths to explain it all in the IRS “Tax Guide for Churches & Religious Organizations.”

According to the publication, “churches may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status,” however, they may not lobby “the public in a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar procedure.”

Under very strict guidelines, churches are allowed to do what is considered “minimal” lobbying, with expenditures capped at $1 million.

Churches that violate these guidelines are at risk of losing their tax exemption and having to pay an additional excise tax.

There are, of course, a number of churches that routinely thumb their noses at the IRS guidelines, but none as egregiously so as the LDS church.

History has shown that it put a lot of dollars and man hours into vigorously fighting the Equal Rights Amendment over a number of years.

Documents in opposition to the ERA, sermons decrying it and “volunteers,” flown into critical areas at crucial times at church expense, were a part of the effort.

The church then had a heavy hand in California’s Proposition 8 campaign, raising a lot of cash and sending workers to fight against same-sex marriage.

During the Prop 8 campaign, Monson sent a letter to every Mormon church with instructions to read it during meetings. By election day, nearly $3 million had been raised in Utah alone to push for a ban on same-sex marriage in the aftermath of Monson’s message.

That is the effect of the pulpit on the voting public and why such activity could, and should, result in the LDS church losing its tax-exempt status with the IRS.

Look, as a participant in a free press, my profession is also protected by the First Amendment, yet I don’t know of any news organization that gets off the hook on property taxes, federal, taxes, state taxes or any other kind of taxes to remain in business. Of course, we do not claim to hold your eternal salvation in the balance when we come forward with policy, opinion or analysis.

I can very well understand the church’s concern about teen drug use. Kids should not use drugs. Their bodies are in critical developmental stages that can be negatively impacted, whether the drug is cannabis, uppers, downers or booze.

But, the statement issued by the LDS First Presidency is woefully uninformed, because you see, there has not been a spike in cannabis use among teens in Colorado where recreational use for adults has been on the books for several years now. In fact, cannabis is not even the drug of choice among Colorado teens, alcohol is.

In Utah, cannabis, alcohol and meth are the top three drugs of choice, with binge drinking a growing problem among teens.

But, despite the restrictions and quaint laws, Utah has not outlawed the use of alcohol. Why? Especially if there is concern about our kids.

It’s time for the LDS church to get out of the political game, whether in its own backyard – where it has a death grip on the state Legislature – or by interfering in the business of its neighbors. Its meddling position is antithetical to the ideology of most church members who are staunch defenders of states’ rights, after all. Of course, the church position on medicinal cannabis also collides with the will of the people at home, where 61 percent are in favor of compassionate legalization.

This is not a condemnation of religion or spirituality or faith – all of which are quite different from one another.

It is just a simple realization that if you want to play, you’ve got to pay.

There are no free rides, even when it comes to religion, where your tithing helps secure your position within whichever church you join.

As far as the Pastafarians who are officially members of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are concerned?

Well, although they do dangle an interesting perception of heaven where volcanos spew beer instead of lava and the whole place is one big stripper factory, I think I’ll pass.

But, I will defend their right to believe as they wish.

As long as they pay their taxes.

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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  • .... October 18, 2016 at 7:58 am

    I’m for it. .it could do wonders for RealLowLife and his anger issues. Praise the Lord !

    • Real Life October 18, 2016 at 10:50 am

      Job. Get one. Dope. Get off it.

      • .... October 18, 2016 at 6:46 pm

        Awwww you poor little thing did I hit a nerve !

        • .... October 18, 2016 at 7:24 pm

          Actually I’m quite impressed RealLowlife you managed to name two different things in one sentence. well done !

          • RealMcCoy October 20, 2016 at 2:02 pm

            He actually did not. Maybe 2 different things on the same LINE, however there are 4 periods/4 sentences, and half of them were only sentence fragments.
            Save the admiration, as it is not warranted yet.
            The grammar nazi’s will be watching though…..

  • debbie October 18, 2016 at 8:37 am

    if the church were asking people other than parishioners to vote a certain way i would remain quiet.. but they are asking parishioners.. religion is a way of life, not just staring at an alter. i’m not lds at all.. but i just wanted to give that one opinion.. about their prop 8 stance outside the church boundaries.. thats another story, i never thought about that until this article.. but, your quote about the the three drugs of choice seems a bit off in southern utah since there have been a few teenage deaths from heroine. its pretty prevalent here. any drug that leads is scarey but then again, people in real pain are being left in agony b/c of those who steal it and use it or lie to get it and abuse it. smh. always the innocent people that suffer.

  • Forsooth October 18, 2016 at 10:31 am

    I don’t usually agree with Ed, but he’s absolutely correct here. Any church that straight up tells their people how to vote has crossed a troubling line. It’s perfectly acceptable to hold to whatever Word of Wisdom or law of health you personally choose; but once you vote to have your beliefs enforced on others by law, you are the bad guy in that situation. The church needs to drop out of politics entirely and here’s hoping the threat of non-exemption spurs them that direction.

  • Brian October 18, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Apparently “public” is too hard of a concept for Ed. Lets break it down.

    Examples of “private”:
    In my own home (me and my voluntary guests)
    In a private organization, on private property (a club, a church, or other similar group defined by its membership)

    Examples of “public”:
    Buying airtime on news, tv, web, or other social media, indiscriminately targeting everyone
    Advertising on billboards

    The LDS church reading a letter on LDS church property to LDS church members is PRIVATE, NOT PUBLIC. They didn’t break the letter or spirit of the law. They are WELL within their rights to do so. Same with posting it on lds.org or mormonnewsroom.org, both of which are PRIVATE property and anyone that accesses them does so voluntarily.

    As for Prop 8, the church didn’t pay $3 million, church members did. The church didn’t protest or vote, church members did. The LDS church stated it’s beliefs and encouraged members to stand up for those beliefs. Again, WELL within their rights.

    I’m curious, Ed. Do you feel the same anger towards publicly funded, tax-exempt universities that actually ARE breaking this exact law left and right on liberal issues? Where is the column on that?

    • Nathan October 19, 2016 at 8:15 am

      Hey Brian, here’s a “source” for you.

      “It was eventually learned that the Mormon Church coordinated contributions amounting to more than half of the $45 million dollar Yes on Prop 8 campaign, as well as contributing non-monetarily to the campaign by sending Mormon campaign volunteers through the Church’s “mission” program and offering use of church ward (parish) properties throughout the state.”

      The Mormon church is notable for many things…one being the only church in history to be found guilty of violating California election laws.


    • .... October 19, 2016 at 6:00 pm

      Maybe it was the Russian Hackers or maybe just the aliens eh ?

      • RealMcCoy October 20, 2016 at 2:05 pm

        To quote a famous and revered stateswoman- “what difference does it make now?”
        But just to be safe, let’s blame the Russkies.

  • Bubbasheepherder October 18, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    You stated a lot of things in your column without sources. Can you please share your sources? Any half decent journalist would include sources.

    • mesaman October 18, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      You answered your own question with your final comment; “Any half decent journalist would include sources”. You are to kind. Ed is not a half decent journalist, he isn’t a journalist and certainly not decent.

      • RealMcCoy October 20, 2016 at 2:07 pm

        Ed’s job title falls under “overpaid, over-opinionated flaming liberal commentator”.
        His articles are rejected from the National Enquirer.

  • DB October 18, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    I’m with you on this one, Ed. From what I see around town, LDS could easily afford to lose their tax-exempt status.

  • ProfessorJake October 18, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    I know that this argument has gained traction but I feel there are several things often over looked.

    First, Churches may maintain their tax exempt status according to the 501(c)(3) requirements of the federal government. Churches can be involved in lobbying and providing support for or against legislation or referendums. The thing they cannot do is provide support to candidates seeking election to public office. The rules may be found here


    Secondly, if we’re discussing a general tax for all churches, fact is a great majority of churches wouldn’t be able to handle the extra costs. Churches under tax exemption remain under such because of voluntary donations, just like other tax exempt organizations (i.e. Red Cross). It would be an unfair duty to churches who are following all the provisions of meeting the tax exemption to face taxes simply because some people do not agree with them as being contribution towards the greater good of the community. Also, most churches fund their charities off of the discretionary budget which remains. Taxing church would effectively force churches to cut out on much of their charity efforts.

    Lastly, taxing churches would essentially grant them the ability to do what they want in the political sphere. If you tax churches like business they deserve the same representation and rights as a business enjoys. This would mean a church could openly endorse candidates and even increase lobbying efforts. Not to mention churches could directly operate and run businesses themselves since they would essentially become such.

    Just some things to consider on this topic.

    • Bob October 19, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      the mormon church already operates businesses. their whole setup is like a big business.

  • Fred October 18, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    The wording in your editorial is “the public”: Are members of the church “the public” or a specific segment of the public present in I private meeting, in a private building?

    • RealMcCoy October 20, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Since you have to know the secret handshake and the secret words to get into the super-secret temple, the answer is yes, it it is a private club, with private meetings, in a private building.

  • Curtis October 19, 2016 at 10:11 am

    The power to tax is the power to destroy — Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.
    The Civil Rights Commission has just declared that in any conflict between religious beliefs and civil rights, religious beliefs lose.
    I am a believer in slippery slopes.
    Besides, what good works do churches perform that could not be better done by the Federal Government?

  • r2d2 October 19, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    I don’t see the any church controlling anything. If the majority ruled this country we would have no gay marriage or abortion clinics. In this country minority rules. That is not the way it is suppose to be. If the people want to take tax exempt status from religious organizations then why not do away all non profits. Make them all pay taxes. Put it to a vote, but don’t slant it to your way of thinking. Tell the truth for once. God Bless America.

  • 42214 October 20, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Simplify the tax code. No deductions, no exemptions. You make money, you pay taxes. Churches make money. Charities make money and pay outrageous salaries to CEOs. Tax code is broken, period. You want to donate or contribute do it for that reason, not for a tax write-off. Everyone pays their fair share that nobody will agree on so the vicious circle continues and nothing gets fixed.

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