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Antigay, Tax-Exempt Mormon Church Accused of Misusing Billions

Mormon Temple

A whistleblower contends the church isn't spending members' funds strictly on religious and charitable purposes as required by its tax-exempt status.

It's well-known that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormon Church, is anti-LGBTQ and sexist, and has a history of racism. And now a whistleblower has alleged that the church has misled its members about where their donations are going and may have violated federal tax rules.

The whistleblower's complaint, filed with the Internal Revenue Service November 21 and the subject of a Monday Washington Post article, accuses the denomination of "stockpiling [members'] surplus donations instead of using them for charitable works" and "using the tax-exempt donations to prop up a pair of businesses," the Post reports.

The complainant is David A. Nielsen, who until September was a senior portfolio manager at Ensign Peak Advisors, the church's investment division, based in Salt Lake City, where the church itself is headquartered. Ensign is registered with the IRS as "a supporting organization and integrated auxiliary" of the church, so it has nonprofit status and is exempt from paying federal taxes.

But "the exemption requires that Ensign operate exclusively for religious, educational or other charitable purposes, a condition that Nielsen says the firm has not met," according to the Post. He wants Ensign's tax-exempt status to be withdrawn and says the firm may owe back taxes amounting to billions of dollars.

The Mormon Church requires members to donate 10 percent their annual income to the denomination; this practice, which some other churches engage in as well, is called tithing. The church collects about $7 billion a year from members, $6 billion of which is used to cover annual operating expenses. The remainder goes to Ensign, which invests part of the money.

As of February 2018, Ensign had about $100 billion under management, up from $12 billion when the firm was founded in 1997, the Post reports, citing "internal accounting documents." That's only $11.5 billion less than the net worth of the richest person in America, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Nielsen claims that Ensign has not put any of this money directly into religious, educational, or charitable activities. He did not provide written documentation but said he learned this information while working for Ensign. Nielsen ended his tenure with Ensign "after his wife and children left the Mormon Church and asked him to follow them," the Post notes.

Church leaders have offered little information about how much money has been spent on those eligible activities. One said in 2016 that it has spent about $40 million a year over the past 30 years, and a church report last year cited $2.2 billion in charitable spending since 1985. There is no threshold for how much a tax-exempt institution has to spend on these efforts to maintain its status; the IRS determines compliance on a case-by-case basis.

Nielsen says he's been told that funds are being saved for use during the tribulations that the church believes will lead up to the return of Jesus Christ. He was highly critical of this, saying the church shouldn't continue to collect money from members who may be struggling financially. "Would you pay tithing instead of water, electricity, or feeding your family if you knew that it would sit around by the billions until the Second Coming of Christ?" he wrote in an essay accompanying the complaint. Collecting tithes, he said, is a way for the church to control its members.

He also said the church has used $2 billion of the funds managed by Ensign to bail out businesses, including a church-owned insurance company and a Salt Lake City shopping mall the denomination owned with a real estate firm. The Mormon Church had said no tithing money went to these ventures.

The church issued a statement to the Post saying all the money it receives goes toward its mission in one way or another. "Investments can be accessed in times of hardship," the statement said.

The church's mission includes anti-LGBTQ dogma. It deems same-sex relationships a serious transgression, and it considers gender assigned at birth to be eternal. Church leaders have even said that Satan is the source of LGBTQ activism. It called on its members to support the 2008 California anti-marriage equality ballot measure known as Proposition 8, which they did with millions of dollars in donations and many hours of volunteer work; the proposition passed, and it revoked marriage equality in the state until it was struck down in court. Some activists have blamed the church's anti-LGBTQ teachings for a spike in teen suicides in its home state of Utah. The church also does not permit women to serve as clergy, and until the 1970s it barred Black men from the clergy and restricted Black members' other church activities.

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