A Victory for Pluralism in the Dismissal of the UK Fraud Case Against President Monson

Westminster Magistrates Court (source: http://tinyurl.com/oox8x4w)

Westminster Magistrates Court
(source: http://tinyurl.com/oox8x4w)

The express benefits, particularly to a misunderstood and widely unpopular religious minority, of a robust secular public sphere that protects freedom of belief/conscience, the free exercise of religion (among numerous other fundamental rights, including the rights of non-religious people in their beliefs and choice not to practice religion), and pluralism were highlighted today in London, England. More specifically, in a victory for a robust, secular public sphere (and, hence, a victory for society in general), Senior District Judge Howard Riddle of the Westminster Magistrates Court today dismissed a private fraud prosecution that had been brought against President Monson and the Church by a former Mormon under an obscure legal procedure that allowed a private citizen to seek criminal enforcement of relatively recent anti-fraud legislation in the United Kingdom.

Two former Church members, one a former senior regional leader and the other a former bishop, claimed that President Monson induced them to pay tithing based on fraudulent teachings that Church leaders allegedly knew were untrue, including (among others) that

  • there were no deaths on Earth before 6,000 years ago
  • all humans are descended from two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago
  • Joseph Smith translated the Book Of Mormon from ancient gold plates and it is historically accurate Native Americans are descended from Israelites who left Jerusalem in 600BC
  • Native Americans are descended from Israelites who left Jerusalem in 600BC

Before the ruling today, BBC radio interviewed Dr. James Holt, a Mormon lecturer in religious studies at the University of Chester, about the allegations. Dr. Holt did a fine job speaking as an active, faithful Mormon observing the situation (listen starting at 1:42:44). For example, when asked about the allegation that the Church teaches that the earth is only 6,000 years old, Dr. Holt answered correctly that the Church has no official teaching on that point. The interviewer noted that this was consistent with Mitt Romney, an active, faithful Mormon, seeming to be the most open among the Republican presidential candidates to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the development of life on earth. (I found it unfortunate, however, that Dr. Holt then also said that, from his personal perspective, he does not know about the age of the earth, leaving room for the audience to think that as a Mormon he personally perhaps believes or feels there is reason to need to believe within Mormonism that the earth must be only 6,000 years old, rather than simply backing science as to the age of the earth, a position that would not need to conflict with fully faithful Mormon belief in any way.)

In the ruling, Judge Riddle noted that the case was an “abuse of court process,” which many or most outside observers (such as myself) had recognized instantly upon hearing of the case. Judge Riddle, to his credit, went further, observing that “I am satisfied that the process of the court is being manipulated to provide a high-profile forum to attack the religious beliefs of others.”

This is what I and many with whom I spoke felt was the impetus behind the lawsuit in the first place. I did not believe that those who brought the suit thought they had a chance of success; rather, I believed from the beginning that their objective in bringing the case was to use the courts, and specifically the media coverage that would likely ensue, as a vehicle to get this list of things they believe are incorrect teachings in front of as many people as possible, including especially faithful Mormons who don’t read their other online postings about these topics. They possibly hoped that deconversion of at least some Mormons would result and that the allegations would cause difficulty for the Church among potential converts.

Judge Riddle ruled that “[t]o convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon Church are untrue or misleading” and that “[n]o judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury.”

The BBC reporting of today’s ruling includes the following helpful context about the implications of a robust secular public sphere for minority religions (or for any religion, for that matter) on issues such as this:

There has been a long history of reluctance by judges to intervene in theological disputes.

As far back as 1949, a senior judge said that “no temporal court of law can determine the truth of any religious belief… and it ought not to attempt to do so”.

Since then judges have become more outspoken in distancing the law from religion.

Had the court decided to intervene in claims [against] the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it might have had awkward implications for other religions.

Even vehement Christian critics of the Mormons accept that a court ruling against the literal truth of Adam and Eve could be the start of a slippery slope, inviting challenges to other beliefs, such as the belief that Jesus was born to a virgin.

The court’s verdict will be a relief to Mormons, whose 12th article of faith expresses a belief in “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honouring and sustaining the law”.

As Mormons we have even more reason than adherents of majority religions (like American Evangelical Christians in the United States) or state religions (like the Church of England in England) to be sincerely grateful for society’s open embrace of pluralism, a development that in the United States and United Kingdom is rooted in the political and philosophical heritage of the English and Scottish Enlightenments, particularly in principles of Lockean Toleration dearly won over centuries. Let us not forget this heritage!

Let us not forget the protections a robust secular public sphere affords us as a religious minority and enthusiastically embrace “[t]he pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries,” as described by the Church in its 2008 brief (see para. 113, page 22) (source) before the European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”) in the case of Obst v. Germany (final judgment of Dec. 23, 2010). In remembering and honoring these protections and benefits of pluralism, let us resist efforts to erode them, whether from interests claiming that the religious voice should be privileged in the public square rather than have equal access and footing there (which would allow majority or state religions to interfere with or even oppress religious minorities) or from those who would try to undermine the protections afforded to the free exercise of religion, whether such efforts stem from nonreligious people convinced that religion is harmful to citizens of the state or from religious people who view religious freedom and free exercise of religion as something that only inheres in the religious majority or state religion.

The outcome today in the Westminster Magistrates Court — though never really in doubt to those aware of the protections afforded to freedom of belief and free exercise of religion in the UK’s robust secular public sphere — signals an “important strengthening of the Church’s religious freedom” (see the Church’s 2008 brief in the ECHR, para. 2) in the UK because it reinforces the essential precedential secular principle in the UK that “no temporal court of law can determine the truth of any religious belief . . . and it ought not to attempt to do so.”

Comments

  1. Splendid analysis, Mr. Fowles.

  2. As always, excellent stuff. Your defense of religious pluralism in the context of a secular public sphere is especially important.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Good stuff. The importance of religioius pluralism is sometimes lost on some of our people in places like Utah, where we happen to be the religious majority and thus have the capacity, should we so choose, to throw our weight around. This is a good illustration of why such pluralism is essential.

  4. I wrote my masters thesis on pluralism and the protections afforded to minority groups in a robust civil society. I focused on Egypt as my case study, but it is nice to see those principles reaffirmed in a Western court. This is an important issue and has implications in all manner of political and social debate and issues.

  5. That’s great Brian — thanks for mentioning that. How interesting that you chose Egypt as your focus! I reflected on the issue with regard to Turkey in a blog post quite some time ago: http://bycommonconsent.com/2010/07/27/a-secular-turkish-delight/

  6. Thanks John, I wrote it in 2009, so my thesis is a little dated. Turkey faces many of the same issues that Egypt does, but I think they do a better job than Egypt. We, especially in Utah, can learn a lot from those countries about how to not be a majority religion.

  7. Thanks for the writeup. In online commentary, I’ve seen people suggesting that the party that filed the lawsuit should pay court and lawyers’ costs. Despite my years of reading Rumpole, I have only a vague grasp of the court system in the UK, so since this appears to have been a frivolous lawsuit with an obvious outcome, does the Church or the government have any recourse against the person or people who filed the action?

  8. Spot-on.

    I have said this elsewhere, but what I find most interesting is that, when considering the blatantly disingenuous approach of MormonThink, we have a case here of a blatant fraud (Tom Phillips) alleging fraud in a fraudulent manner. Irony, thy name is Tom Phillips.

    Also, he is a great example of the danger posed by all-or-nothing thinking. By all accounts, he used to be a zealot while a member; he now is a zealot as an ex-member. Nothing but his focus has changed. In each case, in his own mind, he is 100% right and everyone else is 100% wrong. His bitterness and the warped vision it creates is just the opposite side of the Polyanna-ism that is too prevalent in the Church.

    I know that mentality works for lots of people, and is relatively benign in many lives, but it is dangerous and ought to be discouraged – as Pres. Uchtdorf, particularly, has been addressing lately.

  9. Thanks, John. Great analysis.

    Amy T, in the UK, the loser of a civil case pays attorney’s fees for the other side. But this case seems to be weird civil/criminal hybrid, so I’m not sure whether that applies here or not.

  10. Thank you for this. I enjoyed reading your commentary and kind comments. I am sorry if I left that impression, I was just trying to be honest about my agnosticism about the age of the earth and leave room for all the different views. The interviewer seemed shocked by my response- I think he expected me to confirm a 6000 year belief. Having said that- to be faced with kolob as your first question!!! I’ve since thought of a much better response:)

  11. Ha! Great points. . . .

  12. Ray, all or nothing – evolution explains the origin humankind on the earth? The fundamentalist attitude that so many progressive members have to current scientific consensus as an effect of decreasing faith at the worst, or at best not allowing faith to increase (from a conservative perspective). This isn’t just an evolution-bias, but it’s trending right along almost every progressive issue in the social or economic sciences (where it’s completely disingenuous for one side to suggest they are “right” under any kind of authority other than heavenly authority — and that heavenly authority is conveniently under-weighed compared to worldly views and studies)

    My to my point, I see far more liberals who take an “all or nothing” approach. And I see far more liberals concerned with it. I see plenty of conservatives who don’t really feel comfortable getting behind evolution (for instance) but really aren’t that hot and bothered by it one way or another.

    It’s not the conservatives who keep rallying all or nothing in the arena of gender “equality”. Is this the case of the pot and the kettle?

  13. Tom Phillips isn’t a former mormon. He’s still a member because the church can’t excommunicate him since he received the second annointing.

  14. …in the social or economic sciences (where it’s completely disingenuous for one side to suggest they are “right”… This is a weak argument that depends on foot-in-the-door plausibility given the same argument was one used against the so called “hard sciences” but today few are willing to argue that with a straight face. If you look at the long term trend science has been growing by pushing religion out out of the way. Those who expect religion to one day reverse that trend in some significant way will very likely be disappointed. I think we can pay respect to the gnosis of Joseph and the gnosis of direct revelation but we should understand that most of what is revealed is allegory, in part because our mortal frames of reference are too limited to deal with something more solid. It would be nice to see much of the tension between literalism and science reduced so that members can faithfully observe without having to place logic on the shelf. And I think this was part of the issue in bringing this action against TSM. Blind faith sets members up for rude awakenings.

  15. That’s incorrect. Others with the second anointing have been excommunicated in the past.

  16. Brad (not the same Brad as me): what would give you the impression that the Church can’t excommunicate him? Of course it can. And he’s free to withdraw his membership.

  17. Jinx.

  18. Standing up for correct Bradleys everywhere.

  19. DQ, where in my comment does it even imply that I view an all-or-nothing, black-and-white mindset as the exclusive domain of conservatism?

    I have never said that, and I never will.

  20. I completely and totally agree with Ray.

  21. Hope things change says:

    The crown will be covering Tom Phillips legal costs. This was a criminal case, he was misled by the judge (Rosco) in being able to bring it forward therefore central funds have to pay. Just want to put it out there. How do you respond to former LDS who have paid thousands of pounds to the LDS faith without knowing facts about he Book of Abraham, JS wives, Polyandry etc. People are very hurt when they find a very different church to the one they learnt about in Sunday School. Religious freedom – YES – but why insist on 10% of people’s incomes. Very few religions do. It’s a tough pill to swallow when your Disney version of the LDS falls down.and you’ve paid thousands of pounds in the process. That isn’t black and white either.

  22. Well it appears the crown is telegraphing: buyer beware, don’t drink the Kool-aid!

  23. Are the briefs for this case available on the internet? I want to read both sides’ arguments, and the judge’s ruling.

  24. Mike Maxwell says:

    Seems like binary thinking on the part of the judge but that just may be because I am so sick and tired of hearing academics giving sermons at the alter of pluralism.

  25. Binary thinking? It was an easy case – frivolous with no legal merit whatsoever. There was no other way it could have ended.

  26. Nicely said.

  27. I’ve also been looking for a copy of the actual ruling and have not had success in finding it. Anyone find a link?

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