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.”