Mormon President summoned over content of doctrine

No: it’s not 1 April yet. But according to several newspaper reports — see, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Salt Lake Tribune — the President of  the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S Monson, has been summoned by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court next month to defend the Church’s doctrines. The summons was issued in response to a private prosecution attempt by one Tom Phillips, a disaffected former Mormon who now runs a website, MormonThink, which is highly critical of the Church, who argues that asking members of the Church to make financial contributions while promoting theological doctrines which “might be untrue or misleading” could be a breach of the Fraud Act 2006. According to reports, the LDS dismissed the summons and said that Mr Monson had no plans to attend court.

The Arizona Republic quoted Neil Addison (who, readers should remember, is a former Crown prosecutor) as follows:

“I’m sitting here with an open mouth. I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I’m frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it.”

And so am I. I bow to Neil’s vastly superior knowledge of criminal procedure (emphatically not my starter for ten) and make no comment on that aspect of the case; but what the incident does make me ponder is the apparent lack of legal “joined-upness” that it demonstrates.

Traditionally, just as Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair didn’t “do God”, neither have the courts of the UK  or at least not in relation to the alleged truth or falsity of doctrine. In Khaira & Ors v Shergill & Ors [2012] EWCA Civ 983 Mummery LJ held that

“… the question of succession is essentially a matter of professed subjective belief and faith on which secular municipal courts cannot possibly reach a decision, either as a matter of law or fact” [para 72].

The principle of non-justiciability therefore applied; and although there was no general principle that religious bodies or groups enjoyed a spiritual independence or freedom that placed them above or exempted them from the secular law “or that religion inhabits a ‘civil rights-free zone'” [para 25], the non-justiciability principle meant that the courts would

“abstain from adjudicating on the truth, merits or sincerity of differences in religious doctrine or belief and on the correctness or accuracy of religious practice, custom or tradition” (para 19).

Nor is this a new piece of judicial non-activism: as far back as 1949 Lord Reid declared in Gilmour v Coats [1949] AC 426 that

“No temporal court of law can determine the truth of any religious belief: it is not competent to investigate any such matter and it ought not to attempt to do so”.

And there are numerous subsequent dicta to the same effect.

In the present case, the complaints seem to be about the truth or falsity of a range of issues: for example, Phillips challenges the historicity of Genesis, alleging it is fraudulent to assert that “all humans alive today are descended from just two people (Adam and Eve) who lived approximately 6,000 years ago …  Anthropology, history and DNA studies prove this to be impossible”.

Er, yes (and most of the rest of us would challenge it as well): but why not sue the Jewish, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican communities, just for starters, because they all include Genesis in their canonical scriptures? And what about those Christian Churches (almost all of them) that base their theology on the proposition that Jesus rose from the dead? Or religions that claim that believers will enjoy “eternal life” or reach a state of nirvana?

Further comment is hardly necessary except, perhaps, to say this. In my ignorance of criminal procedure I had always assumed, perhaps naively, that a summons had to disclose some degree of criminal behaviour. Moreover, if the civil courts have set their collective face against adjudicating on the truth or falsehood of religious doctrine, it is very, very difficult to see why the criminal courts should take a different stance. Criminal judges are no better versed in theology than civil ones.

Update: The text of the two summonses (which are identical) have been posted on the MormonThink website. Here’s one of them: