Mormons and the IRS 2/2

lds slc
LDS Temple in Salt Lake City

So where does the IRS come in? Eight years earlier, with the beginnings of a court case against Bob Jones University. BJU is not and was not a Mormon school, however the implications for the case were likely to impact all private religious institutions (and it did.) Bob Jones University received federal tax exempt status, while simultaneously having racially discriminatory policies in place. From 1971 to 1975, Bob Jones University refused all black applicants as a matter of policy. Beginning in 1975, they accepted a limited number of black applicants who signed promises not to date or marry outside their race.

In January, 1970 a three judge panel issued a preliminary injunction against the IRS, preventing that governmental body from offering tax-exempt status to private religious schools in Mississippi that engaged in racial discrimination. In July of that year, the IRS itself determined that it could “no longer legally justify allowing tax-exempt status [under 501(c)(3)] to private schools which practice racial discrimination” in any state, not just Mississippi. By November, 1970, a letter from the IRS went out to private religious schools, informing them of the change in policy. Brigham Young University and other Mormon private schools received this letter.

A series of lower courts supported the initial injunction and the IRS changes, until the case of Bob Jones University v. United States reached the Supreme Court in 1983. The Court determined that the First Amendment freedom of religion did not preclude the IRS from withholding tax exempt status from a religious university with practices contrary to the public good, such as racial discrimination. By the time of the ruling, the Mormon Church had been granting priesthood to black members a couple of years.

It looks to me as if a confluence of factors played a role in the decision. The IRS was revoking the tax-exempt status of religious schools with policies of racial discrimination. The new church president was far more open to the change than the prior leadership had been. And a new temple in Brazil needed priesthood members to run it. It is not certain if Jimmy Carter or the IRS ever made any direct threats to the Church or implied they would. It is however possible.

If the IRS had directly confronted the church and stated that racial discrimination against black men within the church hierarchy was sufficient reason to revoke tax exempt status, I would be the first to demand we use that precedent to argue for women as clergy, and for the taxation of all sexist religions. If the government was willing to intervene into the private matters of churches for the sake of black men, why not ask them to do the same for all women? But without proof that the IRS actually did such a thing, it’s a harder case to make. All I know is that freedom to discriminate against women in religion is one of the most protected rights in this country, far more protected than women’s rights are.

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