Huntsman v. Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
Temple Square is the spiritual seat of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, serving as both the venue for a significant amount of the Church’s ministerial activity and the home of the 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, a Church member who was unhappy with the decision sued the Church, demanding it give him back millions of dollars he had offered as tithes.
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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 Hinckley, the Church announced that it was developing the property to protect the spiritual environment surrounding the Temple and to promote the economic vitality of the local community. Church leaders explained that the Church would not finance the project through direct tithing, the millennia-old, Scripture-based practice of voluntarily donating a portion of one’s income to the Church as an act of both financial support and trust in God. Instead, it would use earnings on invested funds that it had saved over the years.
A church community attacked from within
Over a decade after the Church decided to revitalize the area surrounding Temple Square, a businessman named James Huntsman—who has deep family ties and a long history of leadership roles within the Church—sued the Church to recoup millions of dollars in tithes. He argued that the Church had committed fraud by not describing with the utmost clarity that the reserve funds used to finance the development project originally came from tithing years before. The Church explained that all of its statements were true, since it in fact never solicited, let alone used, any direct tithes 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. Nevertheless, Huntsman claimed that the Church misrepresented that it would not use tithes for the project and demanded his tithing back.
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 donations. The district court ruled that all the Church’s statements about its use of tithes for the project were true. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the district court’s decision, ruling that the Church had committed fraud when describing 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 spiritual decisions about how to use tithes, which itself is 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.