The WikiLeaks-inspired war for the Mormon Church’s deepest secrets
Two websites are taking aim at the Mormon Church. Last Tuesday, Fred Karger launched Mormon Tips, a WikiLeaks-inspired website designed to go after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ tax-exempt status. The LDS Church, like many faith-based institutions, operates as a nonprofit, with its 501(c)(3) designation absolving the religion from paying taxes.
Karger, a 66-year-old gay rights activist, though, believes that the LDS Church functions more like a corporation than a nonprofit. He recently launched a series of commercials claiming that the Mormon Church is a trillion-dollar business, alleging that it brings in between $8 and $20 billion every year from its membership and spends millions on political lobbying each year, including fighting same-sex marriage. To force the LDS Church to be more transparent about its political and financial dealings, Karger is asking anonymous tipsters to leak information in order to go after the organization’s tax-exempt status.
“Help us collect any evidence on Mormon Church tax fraud and then we will file a complaint against them with the IRS,” he pleads in the minute-long commercial, which he reportedly spent $30,000 to produce. After a battle with Comcast, who initially refused to air it, the ad will be broadcast 60 times in the coming weeks.
The campaign is a means of protesting against the LDS Church’s history of anti-gay policies, practices advocates say have continued even as Mormon leadership appeared to have softened its stance on the LGBT community in recent years.
In November 2015, Ryan McKnight—who would later found MormonLeaks, a rival website —released an internal policy memo showing that progress among Mormon leadership remains slow and turbulent. In response to the Obergefell v. Hodges case, which legalized marriage equality in all 50 states, the Church updated its Handbook of Instructions to state that people in same-sex unions would henceforth be branded apostates. Additionally, the children of same-sex couples would not be able to be baptized in the Church until they turn 18 and disavow their parents’ marriage.
“Because of everything they’ve done to brutalize the LGBT community,” Karger told the Daily Dot, “this is a way of fighting back.”
One step forward, two steps back
Nine years ago, Karger helped expose the Mormon Church’s role in Proposition 8, the successful ballot initiative that struck down same-sex marriage in California. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religion founded in the mid-19th century by Joseph Smith, a merchant’s son turned prophet, donated millions of dollars to the effort. The church also offered volunteers and considerable resources to Project Marriage, the anti-LGBT group backing Prop 8. After the church became involved, the campaign was pulling in $500,000 a day in donations.
Kate Kelly, a civil rights lawyer who was excommunicated by the Church in 2012, was a political organizer in San Diego at the time, working for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign. She was also an active member in her local congregation. Kelly claims that 80 percent of the time at weekly services was focused on Prop 8—whether it be organizing, phone banking, handing out fliers, or preaching against the evils of same-sex marriage during the Sunday sermon.
“I believe that the church takes advantage of every loophole that it can when it comes to increasing its net worth.”
“It was all hands on deck,” Kelly said. “If anything has changed since then, it’s that their influence on the political process is more subtle. But from what I can perceive, they are not less engaged.”
Getting called out for its support of Prop 8—which included a small fine from California’s Fair Political Practices Commission—led to a great deal of soul-searching within the church. In 2015, LDS leaders partnered with LGBT advocates in Utah to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance preventing people from being denied housing or employment based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. That bill was the first of its kind not only in Utah but also across the United States. The ordinance remains the only pro-LGBT law ever passed by a majority Republican legislature.
Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, a local LGBT advocacy group, added that LDS leaders have opposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws each time that a state lawmaker has introduced them in the general assembly. Such legislation would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people based on proprietors’ “sincerely held religious belief.”
“The reason that they gave was that these RFRA laws went too far—and that they would cause too much divisiveness in our state,” said Williams, who worked with the Mormon Church the pass the 2015 nondiscrimination ordinance. “The church should really be applauded for that.”
But as Kelly points out, even the 2015 law left room for a “hearty religious exemption.”
“Those laws do not apply to religious institutions,” she said. “If you’re employed by the church, they don’t have to abide by it. If you live in housing owned by the church, they don’t have to abide by it. A lot of people see that ordinance as codifying something that is a very dangerous precedent for other places. If all religious institutions are exempted from not discriminating against gay people, that’s a lot of institutions that provide a lot of jobs and a lot of housing.”
What happens behind closed doors
Videos leaked in October 2016 show that the church did more than protect its blind spots. While LDS leaders worked publicly with LGBT advocates to pass legislation that appears inclusive, the footage shows members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles meeting to state their support for so-called “religious freedom” bills like those introduced in Indiana and Mississippi in recent years. Leaders in the Quorum, the governing body of the LDS Church, discuss building coalitions with other faiths to push such legislation, as well organizing to fight the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act.
“If they think we will move on these issues, they do not know us,” comments Elder Boyd K. Packer, a former apostle who passed away in 2016, in one video. “Never will we budge on these fundamental things.”
“Never will we budge on these fundamental things.”
Packer’s words have proven extremely prophetic. A year after the American Civil Liberties Union estimated that over 200 anti-LGBT bills were introduced across the U.S., Congress will debate the First Amendment Defense Act, a national version of state RFRA laws. Its sponsors in the House and Senate, Rep. Raul Labrador and Sen. Mike Lee, are both Mormons.
Another video further illustrated just how far the Mormon leadership has to go in understanding LGBT issues. The apostles also discuss Chelsea Manning on the tapes, the U.S. Army whistleblower who had not yet publicly come out as transgender at the time the video was filmed. A discussion of whether the LDS could be targeted by a WikiLeaks-like entity is derailed by an obsession about Manning’s sexuality. Elder Gerrit Gong states a rumor he heard that Manning “did what he did” because the army private was jilted by a former lover, which caused the 23-year-old to spiral into depression.
“But he is confirmed homosexual?” one leader asks. Elder Dallin Oaks adds that the answer to this question is of direct importance to the church. “I’m suspicious that the news media cover up anything involving homosexuals when it would work to the disadvantage of the homosexual agenda and so on,” he says.
Those videos were leaked by McKnight, who claims that he received the 2015 policy memo from an anonymous tipster. The ex-Mormon whistleblower, who lives in Las Vegas with his family, left the church four years ago after discovering that Smith, who practiced polygamy despite his wife’s opposition to the practice, took child brides. The prophet married Helen Kimball, who fled Missouri with her parents after Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered the extermination of all Mormons in the territory when she was just 14. Another of Smith’s estimated 40 wives was already married to another man.
In a phone interview, McKnight said that learning the true history of the religion opened up a “proverbial rabbit role.” Once content and active in the church, he began to question every aspect of his faith, wondering if he’d been lied to his whole life. “If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?” McKnight asked himself.
The 36-year-old believes that the 15 videos he published onto YouTube last year show that the LDS Church isn’t what he believed it to be at all. The church acts like both a political lobbying group and a corporation—one that protects its business interests. Although McKnight says many Mormons picture gatherings of the Quorum as Jesus sitting at the head of the table counseling his 12 apostles, the reality is that these behind-closed-doors sessions function like “board meetings.”
He further pointed to the fact the legal name of the Church is actually called the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“If your average Mormon believes—100 percent—that these are God’s servants here on Earth, these videos dispel that myth,” McKnight said, comparing it to the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz where the kingdom’s all-powerful ruler is revealed to be just a man in a machine. “It’s like pulling the curtain back a little bit, taking a peek, and saying, ‘OK, that’s how it’s done.’”
Making the church accountable
After the videos were released, McKnight started MormonLeaks, a website with a similar mission to Karger’s project: to make the Church transparent and accountable.
For instance, recent documents published by McKnight’s team last month call into question the assertion that the 89 leaders who make up the LDS Church’s General Authority receive what’s been called a “modest stipend,” a small monthly allowance to cover their general living expenses. McKnight explained that Mormons are told these men were wealthy and successful prior to being called to serve in the church leadership and look at the opportunity as a means of giving back to the community. Pay stubs leaked to the website in January, however, show that these men each make between $116,400 to $120,000 a year.
“If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?”
An article in Deseret News, the official newspaper of the LDS church, claimed that these salaries are comparable those allotted to other religious leaders, but McKnight said that he takes no stance on whether those earnings are fair. He simply believes that as a tax-exempt body, the church has a responsibility to be open with its membership about its financials.
“That’s an example where people were misinformed about the reality,” McKnight said. “Pretty much anyone that’s reasonable would be hard-pressed to describe a base living allowance of around $120,000 as a modest stipend, especially when there’s quite a bit of evidence that’s just the start of it and there are additional benefits on top of it that we don’t know of. But our job at MormonLeaks is not to influence the conclusion one way or the other. We just want to provide the information so people can come to their own conclusions.”
Kelly said that at the church’s annual General Conference, which is held in November, LDS leaders do some general accounting but called the process very “opaque and vague.” She added, “No one knows what money gets spent on what.”
Although it operates as a 501(c)(3), the LDS Church operates a number of subsidiaries—both non-profit and for-profit. After purchasing 400,000 acres of land in the Florida panhandle for a hefty $565 million, the church became the largest private landowner in the Sunshine State last year, holding even more property than Disney. In Salt Lake City, the Mormon Church operates the City Creek Center, the city’s largest outdoor mall. Located near Temple Square, the shopping center includes name brand retailers like Tiffany & Co, Michael Kors, Banana Republic, and Sephora, as well as a Cheesecake Factory. Despite the religion’s prohibition on consuming alcohol, many of the restaurants serve beer and wine.
“If America went bankrupt, the Mormon Church would be totally fine—for a long time,” Jack Waters, a researcher for Mormon Tips, told the Daily Dot. “They have holdings on multiple continents and all 50 states. They’re doing $40 million a year in humanitarian aid, but that’s a drop in the bucket of what they pull in annually.”
A precedent for a change of heart
By following the money, Karger and his team believe that they will put pressure on the LDS Church to change its stance on LGBT issues. Kat Krietemeyer, who appeared in the group’s recent commercial, said that growing up as an LGBT youth in the church, you are taught that your orientation is a literal burden.
“It was always made very clear that being LGBT is a sin, and if you were having such thoughts, you were going to be whisked away to talk to someone—a bishop, a seminary teacher, or a youth leader,” Krietemeyer told the Daily Dot. “I grew up with some kids that were sent away to programs. Some of those programs tried to convince kids that if they had enough faith they’d be straight, which naturally meant any deviation from that result was your own fault. Others were low-key conversion-therapy camps where kids would carry rocks to simulate ‘the burden of being gay’ on their family.”
Following the LDS Church’s November policy leak, the impact on LGBT youth in the state was devastating. Mama Dragons, a network of supportive mothers advocating for inclusion in the church, estimated that 32 queer and transgender children took their own lives in three months after that document was made public. (That number has been contested by the Utah Department of Health, which claims the actual figure is lower.)
Karger believes that there’s precedent for an outside campaign against the Mormon Church being effective in pushing its leadership toward progress. “They’re slow to change, but they’ve done it with polygamy,” he said.
The LDS Church teaches that the practice of group marriage, an early tenet of the faith, was abolished in 1890 after then-President Wilford Woodruff received a direct revelation from God. The religion still believes in spiritual polygamy, that men will be allowed multiple wives in heaven, just not its earthly equivalent. But in truth, the Mormon Church fought with all its muster to keep the practice in place, even taking the matter to the Supreme Court. In Reynolds v. United States, SCOTUS ruled unanimously that group marriage is unlawful, constituting bigamy. The church lost and the revelation followed.
“They succumbed to social pressures,” McKnight explained. “They made a business decision. It was a smart move.”
The LDS Church was later forced to make a similar decision following years of protests over a policy dating back to Brigham Young: Prior to 1978, black men were not allowed to hold leadership positions in the church. “No person having the least particle of Negro blood can hold the priesthood,” said Young, who served as the second president of the church following Smith’s death. He also believed that people of African descent were “cursed” by God with the “seed with blackness.” Many black athletes refused to compete against Brigham Young University, the school named in the prophet’s honor, in collegiate sporting events.
The policy was so unilateral that black children weren’t even allowed to be leaders in Boy Scouts troops affiliated with the church until 1974, when the NAACP challenged the policy. A 12-year-old boy was blocked from being a Senior Patrol Leader, the highest rank in his troop, and the civil rights organization sued on the child’s behalf to overturn the decision. The two parties settled out of court.
Four years later, the church received a revelation that God “changed his mind about black people,” as the Tony-winning musical The Book of Mormon put it.
“Black people eventually gained their civil rights, even if it was a slow, arduous process,” McKnight said. “The Mormon Church—just like we see now with LGBT issues—wanted to hold onto their racism for as long as humanly possible, even as much of the country had accepted that black people were equal, just as much of the country has moved on and accepted the fact that LGBT people are equal.”
Although Karger believes that Mormon Tips—which launched in response to the recent revelations from McKnight’s website—will find evidence of illegal activity within the church, that’s where he and MormonLeaks diverge. Karger, who ran for president in 2012, said that his hope is that in a year or two, his team will show up at the Internal Revenue Service office located in Ogden, a working-class town located an hour outside of Salt Lake, with “trucks full of paperwork” detailing extensive tax fraud. McKnight has no such expectations.
The MormonLeaks founder, who reasserted that his only goal is transparency, thinks that the church behaves unethically but not in a criminal manner. Under current U.S. tax law, churches can spend up to 20 percent of their total budget on political organizing, for instance, and still retain their non-profit status.
“I believe that the church takes advantage of every loophole that it can when it comes to increasing its net worth,” he said. “But I will be shocked if it’s to the point where it’s engaging in illegal activity. Religion is like the last sacred cow in this country. Religions definitely have wide, sweeping exemptions when it comes to legally being required to offer this kind of transparency. That shouldn’t stop them from doing what’s right.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Ryan McKnight’s age. He is 36 years old. It also misidentified the president of the church when the practice of plural marriage was ended in 1890. It was Wilford Woodruff. We regret the errors. Additionally, this article has been updated to reflect the full, proper title of the Mormon Church: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.