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.”
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.
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