Judge tosses out James Huntsman's lawsuit seeking return of tithing

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge in California has dismissed a lawsuit from a film executive seeking the return of more than $5 million in tithing he'd given to the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over more than 20 years.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson granted the church's motion for summary judgment in a written ruling filed Friday in central California's federal court. James Huntsman, son of the late billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. and brother of Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah governor and U.S. presidential candidate, had sued the Utah-based faith in March.

James Huntsman files lawsuit seeking return of tithing; church calls fraud claims ‘baseless’

James Huntsman, who lives in California and runs a film distribution company, alleged the church defrauded members by using tithing funds for purposes other than charity, echoing previous allegations that it used $1.4 billion in tithing funds to help pay for City Creek Center shopping mall in downtown Salt Lake City. The church has called the claims "baseless," saying it did not use tithing to build the mixed-use commercial development across the street from church headquarters.

Church leaders have emphasized that the faith maintains reserve funds in the case of economic downturns to cover operations of its temples, global missionary work, more than 30,000 congregations, and five colleges and universities.

Wilson focused on public statements from former church President Gordon B. Hinckley in dismissing the case. The judge noted President Hinckley had said tithing funds wouldn't be used to pay for the project, but earnings from investments of some tithing funds in the church's reserves would be.

"Ultimately, this is not a case about whether defendant used tithing fund in any manner, directly or indirectly, to pay for the City Creek project," Wilson wrote. "Rather, the question is more specific: Did Hinckley make a false statement when he said that tithing funds would not be used on the City Creek project, but earnings from invested tithing funds would be used on that project? As discussed about, no reasonable juror could find that the statement was false."

Huntsman said he stopped paying tithing in 2017 and sought the return of previous donations after a 2019 report that a former employee for the church's investment arm had filed an IRS complaint alleging the church should be forced to pay taxes on returns made from invested tithing funds.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins has said there's no merit to Huntsman's claims.

"As President Hinckley said in the April 2003 general conference of the church, the funds came from 'commercial entities owned by the church' and the 'earnings of invested reserve funds,'" Hawkins said at the time the suit was filed. "A similar statement was made by President Hinckley in the October 2004 general conference. Mr. James Huntsman's claim is baseless."

"Tithing funds are voluntary contributions by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an expression of their faith in God," Hawkins said in March. He said the funds are used for a broad array of religious purposes, including missionary work, education, humanitarian causes and the construction of meetinghouses and temples.

Additionally, the judge dismissed another claim of fraud raised by Huntsman, who alleged the church used about $600 million in tithing funds to bolster insurance company Beneficial Financial Group in the 2008 financial crisis. The judge said Huntsman failed to specify any misrepresentation by the church and Huntsman's allegation would require a judge or jury to "intermeddle in internal ecclesiastical disputes," which the First Amendment prohibits.

The insurance company is owned by the church's for-profit arm, Deseret Management Corp., which also owns the Deseret News and KSL. Deseret Management leaders reported earlier that DMC provided those funds to Beneficial to strengthen its balance sheet and made full disclosure to the Utah Department of Insurance.