The Confidentiality of Tithing

Kaimi’s post about tithing and confidentiality prompted the lawyer in me to wonder whether members who pay tithing have any legal expectation of confidentiality. If a bishop or financial clerk disclosed information about a member’s tithe paying, would the member have a cause of action against the individual who disclosed the information or against the Church? Hmmm. Close call.

Confidential relationships – often called “relationships of trust” – usually require one person to repose trust or confidence in another individual or organization with an expectation that the person receiving the information will act in the disclosing person’s interests. I suspect that most members who pay tithing realize that this information passes under at least two noses on the date of payment. Moreover, the bishop and other leaders are privy to the information because the Church keeps records, which are used at year end in tithing settlement (where the member’s tithe paying status is discussed with the bishop). Finally, bishops, clerks, and other church officials change over time, thus ensuring that every tithe payer will expose information to many people over the course of a lifetime. Still, I think one could make a fair case that members expect their tithe paying practices to remain confidential and would expect the Church to instruct leaders on how to ensure that.

Just for fun, I searched Westlaw for cases. I didn’t find one on point, but I found a case in which a former missionary was claiming that the Church owed him fiduciary duties:

[T]he Turners assert the following facts show the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship: Turner’s life-long membership in the Church; his activities in the Church, including tithing, membership in the priesthood, performance of religious ceremonies, and his callings as an officer in different Church organizations; his moral standing in the Church, including his pledge of allegiance to the Church, its leaders and teachings, and his Temple Recommend; the Church’s requirement that he confess his transgressions and the fact he did confess his transgressions concerning premarital sex and discord within his family; the Church’s appointment of him to be its missionary and “an official representative of the … Church,” as well as the Church’s requirement that he “maintain the highest standards of conduct and appearance by keeping the commandments and following the counsel of [his] mission president”; and the Church’s promise to transport him to and from his mission, to train him for his mission, and its control over his lifestyle at the Missionary Training Center. All of these facts involve either religious doctrine and practices or the internal policies of the Church. Thus, determination of whether a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists would require the courts to interpret religious doctrine, practices, and the internal policies of the Church. Making such an examination of the relationship between the Church and its missionaries would necessarily involve excessive entanglement by the government with the Church in violation of the Establishment Clause. Accordingly, we conclude that the Turners’ claims that a confidential or fiduciary relationship exists between the Church and Turner are barred by the First Amendment.

Turner v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 18 S.W.3d 877 (Tex.App.-Dallas 2000).

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