It was announced this week that James Huntsman is suing the Church for tithing funds he paid on the basis that they were used to fund commercial endeavors like the City Creek Mall rather than charitable giving. He resigned his membership last year. He seeks a return of over $5 million in tithing money.

The Church denies his claim in a statement by Eric Hawkins:

“In fact, tithing was not used on the City Creek project.  As President Hinckley said in the April 2003 General Conference of the Church, the funds came from ‘commercial entities owned by the Church’ and the ‘earnings of invested reserve funds.’ A similar statement was made by President Hinckley in the October 2004 General Conference.  Mr. James Huntsman’s claim is baseless.

“Tithing funds are voluntary contributions by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an expression of their faith in God. They are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses, temples and other buildings important to the work of the Church, as reflected in scripture and determined by Church leaders.”

You can read the lawsuit details here. If his suit is successful, which seems unlikely, he states he will donate the funds to pro-LGBT groups like Equality Utah where he is a board member. He states that he first became concerned when the whistleblower complaint surfaced about the $100B rainy day fund.

In the most recent Handbook update, the Church has discontinued the term “excommunication” in favor of “membership withdrawal,” which sounds a little more like being kicked out of a country club. In general, you can’t recoup past membership fees, even if you are removed from a club vs. choosing to leave it. In an online group last week, someone mentioned a gay couple that has been attending Church who were seemingly welcomed by the leadership, only to suddenly be sent a disciplinary letter that they are going to “withdraw their membership.” When I read that story, it occured to me that in refusing them membership, they are probably treading on thinner ice when it comes to keeping their tithing donations.

With our current pro-religion Supreme Court, the idea of refunded tithing would probably come to naught anyway. The Church is very careful to state that it can use funds in any way it chooses on the tithing receipt slips. Keeping the tithing of someone who is being kicked out feels morally mixed to me: 1) wrong in that the person in question wants to participate and is being done wrong in this process, having their membership denied to them unjustly, and 2) water under the bridge as the donations are made in the past; anyone can stop giving at any point in time. It feels a little bit like a break-up involving an engagement ring investment. If the member bought the ring, but then the Church kicked them out, the ring should go back. You don’t get to just breaks hearts and keep rings given in good faith, right?

Regardless, this type of lawsuit dredges up information that the Church might prefer not to have brought to light. Despite Eric Hawkins’ assurances, I have a little bit of curiosity about whether or not the Church did cross some lines between its commercial ventures, its maintenance and building, and its charitable giving. I tend to think the Church is super careful, too careful even, so I suspect they will be able to weather this storm legally. The real damage is likely to be member trust and public relations.

  • What do you think James Huntsman’s real motive is? The PR black eye or the tithing refund? Both?
  • What, if any, outcomes do you think will result from the lawsuit?
  • Was your willingness to pay tithing impacted by knowledge of the $100B slush fund or any other of the Church’s financial endeavors?
  • In general, do you think the Church is a good steward of the widow’s mite? Why or why not?