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Mormon Church Misused Donors' Money Says Federal Lawsuit

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A member of a prominent Mormon family is suing the church. James Huntsman, brother of the former Utah governor, alleges that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints misused money he tithed. His lawsuit has opened up a conversation about what it means to give to the church. From member station KUER, Sonja Hutson reports.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: Church members are expected to give 10% of their income as tithing. The church says that money goes to further its mission, which includes things like building temples and doing humanitarian work. Huntsman's lawsuit claims the money was also used for commercial projects, including developing a large mall in downtown Salt Lake City. When the project was first announced in 2003, then-church-president Gordon B. Hinckley said it would not be built with money from tithes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GORDON B HINCKLEY: Funds for this have come and will come from those commercial entities owned by the church. These resources, together with the earnings of invested reserve funds, will accommodate this program.

HUTSON: But critics argue that all money the church has originally came from the money donated to it. In a statement, a church spokesman called Huntsman's claims baseless and said Huntsman left the church last year. Both the church and Huntsman's attorney declined to be interviewed for this story. However, the controversy has sparked a discussion about how tithing money should be used.

The lawsuit is a direct result of a 2019 complaint to the IRS that alleged the church had a hundred-billion-dollar reserve fund that it used to bail out two of its for-profit entities. At the time, the church said it created a rainy day fund as part of wise financial management and followed all tax laws. But that complaint led some members to leave the religion.

JASON ARRINGTON: This is an organization that purports to be Christ's true church.

HUTSON: One of them is 45-year-old Jason Arrington. He says he felt betrayed.

ARRINGTON: To find out that that organization was so focused on financial gain as opposed to alleviating human suffering, it was pretty much impossible at that point for me to rationalize continuing to make myself aligned with that organization.

HUTSON: But many Latter-day Saints say neither the IRS complaint nor the lawsuit impacted their faith. For 22-year-old Hanna Seariac, tithing is a religious practice, not a donation to charity.

HANNA SEARIAC: While parts of tithing are used for charitable giving, the main purpose of tithing seems to be a way to show devotion to God and to symbolize that you will give everything to the Lord and not necessarily question how the Lord decides the best way to use that money.

HUTSON: The reactions to the lawsuit exemplify two very different beliefs about tithing. That's according to Matthew Bowman, who teaches Mormon history at Claremont Graduate University. He says traditionally, tithing was thought of as a sacrifice, but it's taken on new meaning.

MATTHEW BOWMAN: So much else in our society - right? - which is very much a cash-based society and a consumer investment-based society. We are kind of trained to expect a return on these kinds of things.

HUTSON: Not necessarily a financial return on that investment, though, but rather knowing that good work is being done in the world. And that's what's in conflict for some with the church's investment in malls and real estate.

For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.