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:



7 thoughts on “Mormon President summoned over content of doctrine

  1. This will be an interesting one to watch. Of course, a major issue is at what point the decision is taken as to whether a particular activity is fraudulent or not.

    I think the reason that Tom Phillips is not suing the Anglicans etc is that, last time I checked, they did not require a financial contribution from the congregation. Contributions may be hoped for, or even encouraged, but they are not a condition of worship – whether explicitly required, or extremely strongly encouraged (and we all know how difficult it can be to avoid paying so called ‘voluntary contributions’ sometimes – even if it’s just to the leaving gift collection for that colleague you’ve always loathed). They are certainly not required at a percentage-of-income level. So the court is not just looking at doctrine the way courts have refused to do before – the cases I remember (not being an expert) are where two adherents of the same religion have essentially asked the court to adjudicate between them on a purely religious issue. This, of course, the courts are unqualified to do.

    However, that is not what is happening here. Here, money has been added to the equation. The question is not “Is Mormon doctrine is correct or not (or “which Mormon is right”)?” but “Is taking money from someone [effectively] in exchange for promises of non-provable metaphysical benefit fraud or not?”

    Religions tend to get a free pass on a lot of things that non-religious organisations are not allowed to do, like discriminate on grounds of gender. But the discrimination exceptions are (rightly or wrongly) laid down in law, and are fenced around with conditions. As far as I know, there are no such exceptions laid down in law as regards fraud – except for the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951, where a person is not allowed to pretend they are telepathic etc for reward (being actually telepathic for reward is legal). Interestingly, prosecutions under the FMA 1951 can only be brought with the consent of the DPP, which is probably why Tom Phillips isn’t using it.

    So if I can’t claim £1000 off people for promising them eternal life, and I can’t pretend to have mystic powers and charge £1000 for exercising them, why should a religion be able to promise people eternal life in exchange for a tithe of their income? Where does a practice stop being conning money out of the credulous and start being a respectable religion? If this case is non-judiciable, then there must be a line that the Mormons are on one side and my scheme for personal enrichment is on the other side of. Of course, part of fraud is that you know that your statements are false – or that they *might* be false. But how do you prove that? You can’t simply say “well, X-number of Mormons can’t all be lying” because that’s justice-by-numbers. And if I start a religion, how many adherents do I have to have before its assumed we’re all true believers and not fraudsters?

    No matter what you think of any particular religion, I think it’s a point that needs to be examined. Even if the Mormons aren’t committing fraud, we do need to know where (and how) the line is drawn between the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints and the Religion of Jen (membership £1000 p.a., eternal life after death guaranteed [if after death eternal life is not experienced, please personally send a signed affidavit to this effect and a full refund will be given]).

    Or have I missed something really important?

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  3. Wasn’t the Church of Scientology in France sued over a similar issue?

    I’d love to know what kind of evidence they have, but if they can prove the “Church” has been deliberately concealing facts in order to deceive its members, therefore continue extracting money from them… Surely that amounts to fraud?

    I just google searched the judge. She’s not some two bit hack from Utah. This judge has overseen quite a few very high profile cases at Westminster Magistrates Court. She would not have issued the summons without a reasonable case and sufficient evidence, if only for her own reputation.

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  5. You are looking at this wrong, UK courts don’t involve themselves in religious disputes. Whether it is prosecuted by Phillips or CPS, it has to be thrown out.

    Khaira & Ors v Shergill & Ors [2012] EWCA Civ 983 and Bannatyne v Overtoun, [1904] A.C. 515. (AKA the ‘Free Church’ case.) Gilmour v Coats [1949] AC 426

    It seems a lot of ex-mormons think this action will go to court. It won’t. It just makes Phillips look uniformed for filing it.

    Additionally, the US will not extradite people for financial crimes. Monson won’t ever see the inside of a UK court…

    • I don’t know to whom your comment is addressed, but I’m certainly not “looking at this wrong”: just read my original post very carefully. And I said as much about the unlikelihood of it proceeding further in a brief interview in last week’s Sunday programme on Radio 4.

      (And, incidentally, the correct citation for the Appeal Cases report of the Free Church case is General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland v Lord Overtoun [1904] AC 515.)

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