*UPDATE*

British judge throws out the case against President Monson and the Church, saying, “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.” He described everything as an abuse of the courts process.

So there you go.

By Geoff Openshaw, Managing Editor

Thomas_S_Monson-001Well there’s no avoiding this. Here at This Week in Mormons we support the Church in its mission to help bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the masses. We have no problem, however, being objective about issues in Church history and culture, as I’m sure many of you have seen (or heard!) over the years.

This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point.

So here’s the deal, and we want you to get the facts and not rumors because this could spin out of control quite quickly and leave everyone confused. A British Court (specifically the Westminster Magistrates’ Court) has summoned Church President Thomas S. Monson to appear in court regarding violations of Britain’s 2006 Fraud Act.

The documents charge that President Monson has willfully made statements which he knows to be untrue to induce someone to pay tithing. Simple translation: You told me unprovable stuff to bilk me out of money. The charges are as follows:

  1. The Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith
  2. The Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith, is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record.
  3. Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.
  4. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed as martyrs in 1844 because they would not deny their testimony of the Book of Mormon
  5. The Illinois newspaper the “Nauvoo Expositor” had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith
  6. There was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago
  7. All humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago

Is this the first lawsuit against the Church? Heck no. But the other ones are rarely advertised proudly on one’s blog, so now we have Tom Phillips stirring the pot a bit. But let’s go through these briefly.

  1. The Book of Abraham
    • Of interesting note, when the Church released new scriptures last year, it changed the wording in the introduction of the Book of Abraham from a clear statement that the book was translated from papyri to papyri serving as a vehicle for revelation. Per the Church’s “Summary of Approved Adjustments for the 2013 Edition of the Scriptures” –
      • Introduction, paragraph 4, item 2 – Changed “A translation from some Egyptian papyri that came into the hands of Joseph Smith in 1835, containing writings of the patriarch Abraham” to “An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham. Joseph Smith began the translation in 1835 after obtaining some Egyptian papyri.”
      • That would seem to say that the Church does not support the BoA being a literal translation, allowing for more wiggle room in terms of veracity of the account found on the papyri.
  2. The Book of Mormon – plates, truthfulness, historicity, etc.
    • Look, I can say that Atlas Shrugged is the “most correct book on earth” and be 1) extremely wrong; 2) free to do so. As for the rest, I know eleven guys who have testified of the existence of the plates.
  3. Native Americans, Israelites, et al
    • See the recently-published “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies” at lds.org. Also, the Church has long since abandoned any notion that the actors in the Book of Mormon occupied all of the Americas or that all Native Americans descend from Lehi and Ishmael. Heck, the very existence of the Mulekites refutes the claim about all Native Americans descending from Lehi. Even a shallow study of the Book of Mormon will reveal that there were people native to the land of the Nephites or its environs.
  4. Joseph and Hyrum martyrdom
    • True. No complaints here.
  5. Nauvoo Expositor
    • Yeah. This happened. So did Mountain Meadows. We are an imperfect Church led by imperfect people.
  6. No death before 6,000 years ago.
    • Honestly, this guy was a stake president? We believe in periods of time, not literal days. Science and Mormonism go hand in hand. Moreover, science only has knowledge based on what it has discovered thus far. Plenty of science also gets refuted. I’m not saying that science will up and say the earth is not billions of years old, but rather, that it could be older and different from what we supposed previously.
  7. Human descent
    • Eh, if you want to be literal, we all descend from Noah and Co., but they did descend from Adam and Even. But either way, it’s not like the Church made up the belief on Adam and Eve. Go sue every Abrahamic faith, ever, if that is your belief.

So here’s what you need to know about this:

Who is Tom Phillips?

Tom Phillips is a former bishop, stake president, and all-around good guy that has since left the Church. He is the managing editor of MormonThink, which purports to be a website devoted to an academic look at Mormon history and issues, but is mostly a gathering place for former Mormons with an ax to grind.

Mr. Phillips has been teasing about this for some time, even referencing it as his “October surprise.” The surprise must have been delayed into the new year.

He also wrote a book called Romney’s Religion: The Man Who Would Be God, which uses Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy to sell books. Sorry, but is Mitt Romney the only Mormon aiming for exaltation?

Also, note that he doesn’t even get the address correct for the Church Administration Building. It’s 47 E. South Temple Street., not 47 East Temple. There is no “East Temple,” but if there were, it’d be Main Street and that address would correspond to the Church History Library or some apartments.

Why?

We’ve seen similar cases brought against Scientology in Germany. Scientologists are perceived as being totalitarian in nature, and also require payment of some sort to reach higher levels of enlightenment or closeness to God. There is still plenty up in the air from a legal standpoint regarding Scientology, but one could easily surmise that it is viewed by authorities as a for-profit endeavor that guilts, pressures, or brainwashes its adherents into parting with money in order to advance in the organization.

The Church will just send a lawer to a hearing and likely get it dismissed on constitutional grounds.

Obviously, there are parallels here with the Mormon Church, though it’s not quite the same. If one chose to take this point of view, it could be argued that the Church denies full rites and salvation to those who do not give it money in the form of tithing. No tithing = no temple. And that is likely the basis for this complaint in Britain.

However, British courts are generally pretty favorable toward the Church, and British society is reasonably accustomed to the presence of Mormons. Britain is probably the easiest place in Europe for the Church to operate, and don’t be surprised if this entire complaint is tossed out. In fact, according to a USA Today source and former crown prosecutor, Neil Addison, 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.”

Why President Thomas S. Monson?

President Monson is the CEO of the Corporation of the President of the Church, legally speaking. Basically, he’s the shareholder and he’s responsible for what the Church does. His counselors and the Twelve are not.

Is This an Attack on Religious Freedom?

Well, sort of. One could see Mr. Phillips actions as an attempt to rob religion of its right to preach belief and faith without objective proof. That’s sort of the nature of religion, isn’t it, Mr. Phillips? Sorry, I’m trying to have journalistic integrity here, but the guy openly says he left the Church because he found no “proof” that any of it was true. Well no poop, Sherlock.

The extradition effort would be unprecendented and would resonate with the Saints’ collective memories of prophets pursued and prosecuted on what is felt to be spurious charges. And an unprecedented effort will require unprecedented evidence.

Also, if one is to persecute the Church based on some of the arguments in this complaint, shouldn’t that individual also go after other faiths? It’s true that Catholicism does not require one to pay tithing in order to obtain salvation, but a belief that the earth is 6,000 years old is also not a requirement to enter a Mormon temple, nor is it uniquely Mormon. In fact, for the Mormons reading this, if you happen to sit in a temple recommend interview, I encourage you to tell your bishop or stake president that you firmly do not believe the earth to be 6,000 years old. See if they even care.

But this definitely calls to mind the Church’s recent push for religious freedom. Too easily we see the push as a means to cope with same-sex marriage legalization in the US, but it likely has ramifications in terms of freedom of expression abroad that we hadn’t considered, notably legal entanglements of this nature.

Will President Thomas S. Monson Attend?

Heck no, and not because of his alleged dementia  and frail state; but because:

  • Church lawyers will be all over this
  • It will likely be thrown out before it even comes to that
  • However, if it sticks and Pres. Monson does not attend, he could be banned from setting foot in Britain, which is bad, in general, but even worse considering it is a primary base of operations for the Church in Europe.

Russell Stevenson, the Mormon History Guy, also does not feel that President Monson is going anywhere. He says, “The extradition effort would be unprecendented and would resonate with the Saints’ collective memories of prophets pursued and prosecuted on what is felt to be spurious charges. And an unprecedented effort will require unprecedented evidence.”

How does this relate to the Church’s pursuit of its own glasnost (openness) policy?

Things get interesting here, and there’s some speculation mixed in, so bear with us. While the case will more than likely be tossed before amounting to anything, it makes one wonder about the Church’s strategy in avoiding situations like this.

One blog, entitled “Thoughts on Things and Stuff,” alleges that President Monson has not testified of core gospel doctrines since 2005, which was before he was even Prophet. And by “testify,” this means proclaiming the incontrovertible truth that Joseph Smith was a prophet, the Book of Mormon is divine scripture, etc. I’m not sure, however, that the alleged paucity of “core” testimony  is true, as an Ensign article by President Monson from October 2011 finishes with the following:

“With other latter-day prophets, I testify of the truthfulness of this ‘most correct of any book on earth,’ even the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ. Its message spans the earth and brings its readers to a knowledge of the truth. It is my testimony that the Book of Mormon changes lives.”

Notice the clear language – I testify of the truthfulness of … the Book of Mormon. But aside from that, it does merit an interesting study into President Monson’s words. And either it’s just his style or it is deliberate, but most talks from President Monson involve language that sort of alludes to firm declaration without actually saying it. I’m not taking sides on this, but if that is the case, could that be a very deliberate legal tactic to avoid having the CEO of the Corporation of the President of the Church be liable for stuff like this legal complaint?

Also, some allege that President Packer has toned down clear testifying in favor of a more passive approach, given that he’s next in line for the Presidency.

Regarding the Church’s recent slate of articles on polygamy, race and the priesthood, genetics in the Book of Mormon, etc., these very well could partially be an attempt to avoid legal entanglements. But really, these are about opening up as we should have long ago. Marlin K. Jensen, emeritus member of the Seventy and former Church Historian, knew this all too well. He knew that attrition was happening in the Church because of confusion and anger due to one’s own research. The Church doesn’t need to hide behind PR campaigns as it used to, and its pursuit of more open, academic reasoning and history is welcome.

Future Actions

It looks like our frenemigos over at another podcast managed to get some legal perspective on this court filing. They state that basically anyone can do what Mr. Phillips has done and the “…Church will just send a lawyer to a hearing and likely get it dismissed on constitutional grounds.”

Don’t lose sleep over this. Mr. Phillips wants to embarrass the Church into submission. We resisted publishing about this story for the very reason that we didn’t want to be an agent in dragging the Church or President Monson through mud. But it’s better to get the full picture than to let the rest of the media make a circus about it.