In February a British court ordered Thomas Monson, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to appear before the court to answer charges of fraud. Monson, by the way, lives in the United States. The case was brought by a former adherent and leader of the Mormon faith who charged that Monson breached the Fraud Act by using untrue or misleading statements. Specifically, the former Mormon leader alleged that there are key elements of the Mormon faith that are false, meaning that their fundraising efforts are deceptive.
The case was dismissed last week. Senior District Judge Howard Riddle said, “The process of the court is being manipulated to provide a high-profile forum to attack the religious beliefs of others.” According to the BBC, the charges in the fraud case included the assertion that Monson “had induced two men to pay an ‘annual tithe’ based on teachings which were untrue.” There were several specific teachings that the case mentioned, including the key Mormon belief that Joseph Smith translated two ancient gold plates that he received from heaven and that the plates are historically accurate. Also mentioned was the Mormon teaching that Native Americans are descendents of Israelites who left Jerusalem in 600 BC.
The original summons was issued by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe, who went so far as to indicate that she would issue a warrant for Monson’s arrest is he failed to appear before the Westminster Magistrate’s Court. This was a power play in the extreme, of course, since it is highly unlikely that the United States or Great Britain would have cooperated with any request from the court for extradition since Monson lives in Utah. In fact Riddle, along with dismissing the case, stated that the threat of arrest was wrong and should not have been used.
Riddle explained why the case was bogus: “To convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon Church are untrue or misleading. No judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury.”
The case seems rather silly and now that it has been dismissed it is even easier to see it that way but the fact that a judge was willing to allow the case to proceed in the first place and even to issue a summons demanding that Monson appear is a dangerous sign. The implications of the decision pose threats to any religion, not just Mormonism. It seems that most anyone who has an understanding of the legal process and what faith is all about recognized the case as a crock from the very start. Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor, told the Arizona Republic, for example, “I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point.” The religious affairs editor of The Telegraph, a London newspaper, said that Roscoe’s summons was “one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court.”
Herein lies part of the problem with the judicial process, however; one judge who decides he or she wants to make a point can use the power and authority of the judicial system to make life inconvenient or even miserable for an individual or group. Some judges fear the possibility of being overturned; others apparently could not care less if they are able to make a point.
I do not agree with many of the tenets of Mormonism. I certainly do not believe that Joseph Smith received golden plates and the ability to translate them and that the Book of Mormon provides additional God-given information to supplement the Bible. But I also believe strongly that anyone who wants to believe that has to have a right to do so. Matters of faith are not issues for courts to decide. Even if it is an issue that can be proven one way or the other it is not a legal matter. More importantly, though, is that most matters of faith cannot be proven. If any country is willing to allow courts to start deciding what can and cannot be believed then religious freedom is dead.
It seems that this particular case rests on the fact that some individuals who at one time believed what the Mormons teach later decided they did not believe it…and decided they wanted their money back. This is not even a religious issue, which makes the summons issued by Roscoe even more troubling. This is nothing more than buyer’s (or, in this case, giver’s) remorse. If courts were to allow individuals who no longer agree with a church or charity or other non-profit organization to demand their money back, or to sue the organization for teaching, believing or supporting positions which the individual no longer believes, the effectiveness of any church, parachurch, charitable and nonprofit organization would be seriously threatened.
According to WORLD, Eric Metaxas commented on the summons from Roscoe that it was a “pre-eminent example of why Christians should defend religious liberty for all faith groups.” I agree, but I would go further. It is also a pre-eminent example of why judges who violate common sense and use their position to pursue some personal mission should be stripped of their position.