May 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A member of a prominent political family in Utah is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, arguing that donations he made to the church for charitable purposes were spent on commercial activities.

James Huntsman, brother of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., claims the church defrauded him out of millions of dollars. Huntsman says he tithed 10% of his income to the church for 24 years, assuming it was being used to build temples and subsidize missionary work. Instead, he says, the church used it for business investments, including construction of a shopping mall in Salt Lake City. He also claims that church officials “repeatedly and publicly lied” about how member donations were being spent.

“This is not a case about faith; it is a case about fraud and corporate greed,” the lawsuit asserts.

Church officials have called the suit “baseless.”

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the church, told the Associated Press in a statement that contributions “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 in the work of the Church.”

In the lawsuit, Huntsman said he repeatedly sought the return of the money he donated. He is seeking $5 million in damages, which he said he plans to donate to “organizations and communities whose members have been marginalized by the Church’s teachings and doctrines, including by donating to charities supporting LGBTQ, African-American, and women’s rights.”

One legal expert said Huntsman faces an uphill climb.

“The general rule is when you make an unrestricted donation to a charity, it’s the charity’s money,” Sam Brunson, a tax law professor at Loyola University in Chicago, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And if you later discover that they’re doing stuff with the money that you don’t like, you’re out of luck.”