(RNS) — A former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has accused the church of misusing millions of dollars in donations.
James Huntsman, a filmmaker who is the son of a prominent philanthropist and the brother of a former governor of Utah, claimed in federal court that the corporate arm of the church — known as the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — used donations, known as tithings, to develop a mall in downtown Salt Lake City and to bail out a troubled insurance company.
According to a complaint filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, church leaders “defrauded Mr. Huntsman out of millions of dollars by falsely misleading him into believing his tithings would be used solely for charitable pursuits around the world” but instead using those donations for commercial purpose.
Latter-day Saints, like other Christian groups, believe in the idea of tithing, or donating a set percentage of income, usually 10%, to the church. According to the LDS church’s website, tithing is a “natural and integrated aspect” of the beliefs and practices of Mormons.
“All funds given to the Church by its members are considered sacred,” the church’s website states. “They are voluntary offerings that represent the faith and dedication of members and are used with careful oversight and discretion.”
The complaint cites a number of statements from church leaders, saying no tithings were used for the City Creek Mall in Salt Lake City.
A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told The Washington Post that accusations in the lawsuit were “baseless” and that tithes were voluntary religious contributions.
“They 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, as reflected in scripture and determined by Church leaders,” according to a statement from the church spokesman.
The lawsuit is part of the fallout from a whistleblower complaint filed with the IRS in 2019 by a former employee of Ensign Peak Advisors, which manages more than $100 billion in the church’s assets. Those assets came from both church tithings and investments, according to Religion Unplugged, which first reported on the whistleblower complaint, and were used for the mall project and the insurance company bailout.
After reading about the whistleblower, Huntsman, who is no longer a member of the church, approached LDS leaders about returning millions of dollars in donations. That request was refused, according to the complaint.
Huntsman is seeking more than $5 million in damages. In the suit, he stated he intends to donate any recovered funds “to benefit 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.”