Mormon Law 2018 Year In Review

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Jeff Breinholt is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School, where he teaches a course on prosecuting terrorists. The views in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of his full-time employer, the Department of Justice.

Several years ago, I tried my hand at Mormon blogging as an outlet for some intense legal research I had been doing on modern American religions. I eventually wrote a total of 16 posts for Mormon Matters, which reviewed LDS legal history on several topics, with occasional comparative perspectives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. In late 2009, I wrote a piece entitled “Mormon Law 2009 Year in Review.” Now, a decade on, I decided to come out of blogger retirement and revive this practice with the 2018 Mormon Law Year in Review.  This article offers some comparisons to a decade ago, and focuses on my survey of this year’s judicial opinions containing “Mormon” and its variants.

Sex Abuse Lawsuits

In 2009, I posted “The Growing Mormon Sex Abuse Scandal” where I argued that the LDS Church has something to worry about in the years to come. My conclusion was based on the combination of (1) the growing instances in which the LDS Church is sued for sex abuse inaction and (2) the increased criminal sex abuse prosecutions that involve the Mormon Church. Both of these two types of cases, which are on the upswing, were present in 2018.

My research has not uncovered much in the way of legal or journalistic commentary on Mormon sex scandals over the past nine years, as these cases continued to emerge and be litigated. It may be that most people who would be logically interested in these issues – Mormons and people who live in Mormon enclaves – are discouraged from engaging in the subject, since most Mormons do not want to talk openly about these sex cases, and are undoubtedly encouraged by the Church to look the other way when they are raised. I do not have any trouble getting interested in these developments, especially after hearing about McKenna Denson.

Denson claims she was sexually abused by Joseph Bishop, the president of the Mission Training Center while she was training to be a sister missionary in the 1980s.  In 2018, the Church failed to get the fraud count in the case dismissed.

The LDS Church continues to fight other sex abuse lawsuits, which are based on the theory that the Church had a legal obligation to prevent child sex abuse from happening through its involvement in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and other programs. The opinions this year, largely in Idaho, involved the admissibility of expert testimony.

In a separate Washington case, the LDS Church was sued for sex abuse that occurred under the auspices of the Church’s Indian Child Placement Program. The Church earlier this year managed to get the case thrown out based on the statute of limitations, meaning that the plaintiffs waited too long before filing their complaint.

Lori Stevens, a former BYU-Idaho student, filed a lawsuit that alleges that a former professor there initiated an unwanted relationship with her while she was a student, which became sexually and emotionally abusive.  In coming forward, Stevens was worried about losing her Temple recommend.

On the criminal side, there have been a number of LDS-related sex crimes prosecuted in 2018.  In one, the victim testified to how she was molested by “Brother Millsaps.”

An LDS Family in Washington took in an orphan, who soon began a sexual relationship with the wife of the couple and abused her physically. The boy was eventually charged with the assaults and convicted.

LDS-Related Criminal Prosecutions

Nine years ago, I wrote a piece for Mormon Matters entitled “Mormons Doing Nasty Things,” which recounted the history of courts mentioning a criminal defendant’s Mormon membership in opinions. These opinions made for fascinating reading if you are the type who likes going through your co-religionists’ dirty laundry. Mormons are people, and as people they commit crimes like rape and murder.  Many of these LDS defendants however, seem to inject that fact that they are religious, and thus “good” people, into their criminal proceedings.  My decade-ago conclusions were based on my review of pre-2007 data, going back to time immemorial (or as far back as Westlaw goes).

Several Mormon criminals have been prosecuted this past year. These prosecutions resulted in published opinions I thoroughly enjoyed reading. From one of these, we know from 2018 that Mormon criminals are continuing to push LDS-related issues in court proceedings.

Excommunicated Mormon Howard Wayne Hood argued that his excommunication should not have been admitted against him in his sexual assault prosecution. The court described the nature of LDS Disciplinary councils, and ultimately granted Hood a new trial because the evidence was prejudicial. Mormons often inject their religion as evidence of strong moral character into their defenses. I find it interesting that here one tried to remove references to his religion because an excommunication impugned his character.

Harold Otto Bryson was convicted of felony stalking in Utah for activity after his ex-girlfriend obtained a restraining order against him. He sent her a threatening package which contained a letter with Book of Mormon quotations.

A Mormon named David C. Chesser was court martialed for assault and convicted after an act of domestic violence. In Oregon, Daniel Whitaker Bluestein was convicted of sexually assaulting a Mormon woman.

In all likelihood, many more Mormons committed crimes, but these were the instances in 2018 where their religion was mentioned.

Employment Discrimination

In my 2007 Mormon Matters piece, “The Surprising Truth About Mormon Employment Discrimination,” I described how – unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Days Adventists – most Mormon-related employment discrimination cases in history have involved a Mormon boss or employer allegedly discriminating against a non-Mormon employee. This past year followed this trend.

Zachary Rusk sued a brokerage house for discrimination. He claimed the deciding officials for his promotion are both Mormon and “I have reason to believe that Mormon applicants are preferred and selected over non-Mormon applicants.” The court denied (though granting in part) the employer’s motion to dismiss.

In Nevada, Laurie Nadeau, Robyn Coffin, and Dagny Magelssen filed a complaint alleging that their employer, a law office software company known as Wealth Course LLC, was going along with their new Mormon boss’s plan to replace the non-Mormon workforce with Mormons. Their complaints were with a new Mormon boss names Brett Pineger. They claimed he was forcing them into difficult professional decisions as a way to get them to leave so they could be replaced by Mormons. The case apparently remains pending.

Thomas Finn sued after he was fired as police chief of Boulder City, Nevada. His lawsuit claimed that he was fired for not going along with the town leader’s attempts to give special favors to Mormon townspeople, one of whom led a motorcycle gang. The court ultimately granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

A financial employee was disciplined for showing favoritism to Mormons.

A male worker sued his employer for what he said were unwanted sexual advances by a female colleague. One of this allegations was that the colleague asked “if he was Mormon and if he wore garments.”

On the other side is David Alan Fuqua, sued the City of Altus, Oklahoma after he was terminated as city manager. He claimed that he was fired because he was LDS and the city board was concerned that he was hiring too many Mormons. In April 2018, the court refused to dismiss the lawsuit.

It should be noted that some of these 2018 cases do not involve religious discrimination, even though the defendant is the LDS Church. Kristina Zemaitiene sued Deseret Industries after she claimed they refused to accommodate her disability. A court this year dismissed her lawsuit, though she is permitted to re-file. There is a similar situation involving a former BYU employee named Joseph Castellano.

Mormon-Related Mental Illness in Court

Perhaps my most controversial article back in 2009 was “Bringing Out the Delusional,” It involved the question of whether judicial opinions indicate that the LDS Church played a role in people becoming mentally unbalanced. Many of the litigants I described in that article posted comments, or wrote me emails to complain that I was picking on them.

There were several new “delusional” cases in 2018.

Xiu Jian Sun, identifying as “the spiritual Adam” and as a representative of the LDS Church, filed a pro se action on September 12, 2017. Listed as defendants were “Secret gang organization: OBAMA-BARACK-Dog,” and various federal employees and judges.

A weird lawsuit in San Diego including references to the Brass Rail Bar, O.J. Simpson’s children, the LDS Church, homosexuals, and the homeless.

In Hawaii, Peter R. Tia filed a complaint against several federal, state, and municipal entities and private individuals alleging violations of his federal civil rights. The named defendants included “Unnamed Mormons.”

In Oregon, Stephen S. Edward sued a homeowners association, claiming a conspiracy that “relates directly to the Mormon Way of Life and their unorthodox, bizarre and morally questionable values, customs and practices.”

Michael John Wrobel, charged with drug offenses in Idaho, contested whether there was probable cause to search his car. According to the officer, when he pulled over the car, Wrobel was playing Mormon religious music, which the officer believed could indicate that Wrobel was overcompensating by attempting to affiliate with the local religious community.

Miscellaneous

Yao Wang, a Mormon convert, filed a lawsuit seeking asylum, claiming that the Chinese government would persecute him if sent there.

In a Wisconsin slip and fall case, an LDS juror expressed concerns with whether she could be fair with the plaintiff given the juror’s religious beliefs.

So long 2018. Welcome 2019.

*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Comments

  1. I love this! I’m surprised there’s not more. Now I want the 2017 version. And 2016. :-)

  2. Mike Harris says:

    Insisting on referring to Latter-day Saints as Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ as the LDS church is disappointing. Respect and courtesy please especially on a site whose primary audience are members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

  3. Respectfully disagree, Mike.

    Love the post. Interesting about the employment discrimination. My brother was on his way out of the church and found himself in a similar situation in a small, family owned LDS business. Being honest about his faith transition would have had a very negative impact on his employment.

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    I’ve been Mormon for 73 years. I think I will stay a member of the Mormon Church.
    I’m no comfortable with the Church being compared to JW’s and SDA’s.

  5. Roger, as legal and historical entities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are pretty reasonable comparisons for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What is it about the comparison you’re uncomfortable with?

  6. Dang! Mormons ain’t perfect and some are messed up. Oh what shall we ever do?

  7. Rob Porter was probably the most famous Mormon criminal from this past year–I’m not aware of any criminal prosecutions, but he did lose his job as a close adviser to President Trump, due largely to the fact that he’s a serial spouse abuser and therefore had difficulty obtaining clearance. His picture (if not his name) remains on the church website, from when President Trump met in Salt Lake with President Nelson. https://www.lds.org/church/news/church-leaders-welcome-president-trump-to-welfare-square?lang=eng

  8. As an attorney, I was very interested in this post, but ultimately I was extremely disappointed. What’s the point? This is in no way a comprehensive list of litigation involving the Church or members of the Church. If you’re searching opinions on Westlaw, you will never come up with anything representative of the current legal landscape. Many of these cases seem like they could be interesting, but there’s no real explanation for any of them. Based on this article, I don’t even know how to look many of these up.

    If you want to do a survey of legal issues, go comprehensive. If you want to offer highlights, provide some explanation. If we’re going to get this half baked stuff, maybe hang this up for the next ten years.

  9. Martin Pelegrina says:

    Me encanta que se exprese linbremente sobre temas que normalmente la iglesia tapa y a fuerza estan los lideres a tocar . nos muy bien a todos hablar abiertamente sobre todo tema y mas aun cosas tan relevantes como esta . tal ves no seria tan golpeada la institucion si hubieren tratado estos temas como debe ser , pero en ocaciones me da la censacion que tratan de cuidar mas la corporacion que otra cosa y es por eso que reaccionan cuan tocan las arcas que tienen los billetes. Gracias .

  10. I’ve now read through some of Professor Breinholt’s prior works (linked in this article), and I have to say that I am disappointed that BCC even let this guy write a guest post at all. Professor Breinholt’s work is replete with poor legal reasoning, bad copy-editing, seemingly antagonistic tone, and a complete failure to recognize obvious differences between groups that he is comparing. For example, the 2007 employment discrimination article presents a number of cases as though they are statistically reliable, but the method of survey can not justify such an assertion. The standard for inclusion in the survey is unclear, but more importantly, there are so many factors that affect whether a bad act will result in a reported legal opinion that numerical comparison is pointless. Having said that, I have no doubt that Latter-day Saints are perpetrators of workplace discrimination more frequently than Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I don’t have to sit around and (pretend to) wonder why that might be. There are no states founded by these organizations. No large communities where these organizations became the economic backbone. Extraordinarily few places where these groups constitute the predominant religion, much less the majority.

    I could go on, but I don’t want to threadjack to comment on old and stale hit-pieces masquerading as quasi-academic commentary. It’s enough to say that when someone presents professional or academic bona fides, it’s important to make sure that their work lives up to professional and academic standards.

  11. Dsc,

    One wonders whether this post exemplifies BCC’s editorial standards, or their editorial goals.

  12. Jeff Breinholt says:

    Thanks for the comments. On the Church moniker issue, I admit I was not sensitive to the issue, and will correct it in the future. Regarding one reader’s comments that my legal reasoning was poor, I am very surprised by that claim, especially as it comes with no details. To the extent his/her hostility is a result of my occasional invocation of Adventist and Jehovah’s Witnesses as a comparison to the Mormon Church, I do not accept the criticism. I can assure you that my article did not reflect BCC’s editorial goals, because it was not commissioned by them. Rather, it was submitted to them independently.

  13. Jeff, I think I was pretty clear and specific. You present published legal opinions as though they are representative of trends or general characteristics of a group. They are not. Whether facts giving rise to a cause of action results in a published opinion depends on so many confounding variables that you can hardly make any comparisons based on numbers. Factors include willingness of parties to litigate, willingness of defendants to settle, Court rules and other factors that affect how frequently a decision and opinion are published, etc.

    Whether you accept the criticism or not, comparing Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists is arbitrary at best, misleading at worst. In your prior works, you never make clear why you pick these groups as comparisons other than your own observation that sometimes people get them confused with each other. But, as I pointed out (and which gives rise to my confusion over your comment that my criticism “comes with no details”) there are very good reasons to predict that Latter-day Saints would be defendants in employment discrimination cases more often than these groups, given the fact that Latter-day Saints are a majority or plurality religion in far more communities than Jehovah’s Witnesses or Seventh Day Adventists. It’s also apples and oranges comparing any other civil litigation because, in addition to the factors cited above, perceived the ability to collect on a judgment can drastically affect whether a plaintiff brings a case at all or settles.

    This also isn’t a comprehensive list of cases just this year. It took me less than two minutes to find a case in California involving claimants to testamentary gift of which the Church was a beneficiary. I found another parental rights case where a member’s bishop’s wife testified that the ward could provide support to address the parent’s prior parental failures. I didn’t keep looking, but whatever methodology you used to come up with this list is incomplete.

    “On the Church moniker issue, I admit I was not sensitive to the issue, and will correct it in the future.” “…as a comparison to the Mormon Church…” Was this intentional? Was it an attempt to be humorous? I honestly don’t know if this is humor or carelessness.

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