Huntsman v. Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
March 22, 2021
Deciding Court:
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Central District of California
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

Temple Square is the spiritual seat of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving as the home of its international religious ministry and the setting of its iconic Salt Lake City Temple. In the early 2000s, Church leaders decided to revitalize the area just south of Temple Square to protect the site and promote the spiritual and economic well-being of the local community. Nearly two decades later, James Huntsman, a Church member unhappy with the decision, sued the Church demanding it return millions of dollars he had offered as general tithes during that time.


After a divided panel at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Huntsman relief, the Church asked the full court to rehear the case. On October 2, 2023, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Ninth Circuit in support of rehearing, arguing that the law protects the freedom of religious groups to make faith-based decisions without court interference. The Court has now agreed to rehear the case in September 2024.

Case Summary

Revitalizing the spiritual home of the Church 

During the late 1840s, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints migrated to the American West to escape religious persecution in Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and other states. Led by the Church’s second president, Brigham Young, these pioneers eventually settled in the Salt Lake Valley, where Young selected a plot of land to build a temple dedicated to God. Today, that site—known as Temple Square—serves as the spiritual seat of the Church’s worldwide leadership and is home to the iconic Salt Lake City Temple and renowned Tabernacle Choir. 

When the area south of Temple Square needed renovation in the early 2000s, Church leaders made a religious decision to invest in its revitalization. Through its then-president Gordon B. Hinckley, the Church announced it was developing the property to protect the environment surrounding the Temple and to promote the economic vitality of the local community. Church leaders explained that the Church would not directly finance the project through tithing, the millennia-old, Scripture-based practice of voluntarily donating a portion of one’s income to the Church as an act of financial support and trust in God. Instead, it would use earnings from invested funds it had set aside for future use.  

A church community attacked from within 

Over a decade after the Church decided to revitalize the area surrounding Temple Square, businessman James Huntsman—who has deep family ties and a long history of leadership roles within the Churchsued to recoup millions of tithing dollars he had paid in religious offerings over the prior two decades. He argued the Church had committed fraud by not describing with greater clarity that the earnings from reserve funds used to finance the revitalization project had tithing as their principal. The Church explained that its statements were all true, since it never solicited, let alone used, tithes themselves for the project. Moreover, its statements could not have possibly misled anyone, least of all someone as knowledgeable about Church affairs as Huntsman, who was well aware that all Church assets have their origin in tithing. 

Protecting the Church from disgruntled donors 

In 2021, Huntsman filed a lawsuit against the Church in federal court, attempting to recover at least five million dollars of his tithing offerings. The district court ruled for the Church, concluding that all its statements about the use of tithes for the revitalization project were true. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s decision, ruling that a jury ought to decide whether the Church had committed fraud in not describing more clearly how it would fund the project.  

On September 20, 2023, the Church asked the Ninth Circuit to reconsider the case in front of a full panel of judges. Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of rehearing, arguing that the court’s decision poses a serious threat to religious institutions’ ability to carry out their missions. The brief explains that courts have no business second-guessing a church’s inherently religious decision about how to define tithing, which is itself an inherently spiritual practice. The ruling thus threatens religious organizations by allowing disaffected members to sue anytime they disagree with how a Church, through the exercise of its spiritual judgement, chooses to carry out its mission. 

Importance to Religious Liberty: 

  • Religious Communities— Churches and religious organizations have a right to live, teach, and govern in accordance with the tenets of their faith. When the government unjustly interferes in internal church affairs, the separation of church and state is threatened. The First Amendment ensures a church’s right to self-definition and free association.