British judge tosses fraud case against Mormon prophet
Britain • Judge tosses the case, but an ex-LDS bishop vows to fight.
Published: March 21, 2014 02:18PM
Updated: March 20, 2014 09:40PM
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Jim Urquhart | Tribune file photo LDS Church President Thomas Monson waves to the audience after speaking during the closing session of the LDS General Conference Sunday, October 5, 2008 in Salt Lake City.

A British district court judge has thrown out a fraud case against LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, saying “the court is being manipulated to provide a high-profile forum to attack the religious beliefs of others.”

Tom Phillips, a former Mormon bishop and stake president, had charged that Monson has “made representations … which were untrue or misleading — including statements about the origins of LDS scriptures — to “make a gain for himself or another.”

“To convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon church are untrue or misleading,” wrote Judge Howard Riddle, chief magistrate in Westminster Magistrates’ Court. “No judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury.”

The Jan. 31 summons also warned that if Monson — considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — did not appear in the Magistrates’ Court on March 14, a warrant for his arrest would be issued.

Riddle declared that to be wrong.

“Failure to comply with the process is not a ground for issuing a warrant,” the judge stated.

The case itself, Riddle ruled, “is an abuse of the process of the court.”

That sentiment was echoed Thursday in a statement from the Utah-based LDS Church.

“We are satisfied with the court’s ruling,” church spokesman Cody Craynor said in a statement. “This case was a misuse of the legal system and should never have been brought.”

Phillips disagrees with the ruling.

Mormon teachings about history “are testable in court,” he said Thursday in a phone interview from his home in Portugal, “and they are attributable to President Monson.”

Phillips sees the decision as “a setback” because he wanted to take the case to trial. “But it is not the end,” he vowed. “It will go to trial but in a different format.”

He said he will not appeal this ruling, but will find other, quicker ways “to bring the LDS Church to justice.”

American civil-rights and same-sex marriage legislation “started this way by losing initially and then triumphing,” Phillips said. “There will be other court cases.”

LDS lawyers had asked the judge to award the church “court costs,” which Riddle declined to do. It had also asked the judge to charge Phillips with a “criminal offense” for “contempt of court,” punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. Riddle said it was not necessary for him “to decide that question now.”

The court did reimburse Phillips a percentage of his costs, because, as Phillips said, “it was not my fault that the summons was defective.”

The initial charges stem from Britain’s Fraud Act of 2006, meant to prosecute those who misrepresent themselves or their organization to get gain.

Phillips’ assertions were based on the following seven supposed Mormon claims, which he argued are demonstrably false:

• That the Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Mormon founder Joseph Smith.

• That the Book of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, was translated from ancient gold plates by Smith, and that it is the most correct book on Earth and an ancient historical record.

• That American Indians are descended from an Israelite family, which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.

• That Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed as martyrs in 1844 because they would not deny their testimony of the Book of Mormon.

• That the Illinois newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith.

• That there was no death on this planet before 6,000 years ago.

• That all humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago.

To prevail, Phillips and his allies would have had to prove not only that these ideas are false, but also that Monson knows they are untrue and uses them to “get gain” — namely, through members’ tithing money.

Sarah Barringer Gordon, a legal expert and historian at University of Pennsylvania, said previously that the United States has similar laws against religious fraud but they cannot be applied to “good-faith practice of religious convictions — such as promises to cure through prayer, claims of truth (historical or otherwise), and advice on how to lead a happy and productive life.”

Gordon cited a 1944 Supreme Court decision regarding alleged mail fraud involving literature produced by the defendants, who promised to cure many diseases through the ministrations of a divine messenger.

“Men may believe what they cannot prove,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote in the case. “… Many take their gospel from the New Testament. But it would hardly be supposed that they could be tried before a jury charged with the duty of determining whether those teachings contained false representations.”

Any body of scripture, including the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, “is constitutionally protected in the United States,” Gordon noted. “Historical claims in scripture are not subject to judicial investigation.”

In Britain, there has been “a long history of reluctance by judges to intervene in theological disputes,” Robert Pigott, BBC News’ religious-affairs correspondent wrote in an analysis of the Phillips case. As far back as 1949, a senior judge said that “no temporal court of law can determine the truth of any religious belief ... and it ought not to attempt to do so.”

If the Magistrates’ Court had attempted to examine LDS Church claims, “it might have had awkward implications for other religions,” he wrote. “A court ruling against the literal truth of Adam and Eve could be the start of a slippery slope.”

What would be next? he wondered. The belief that Jesus was born to a virgin?

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal