The institutional might of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is about to come face-to-face with the impartial hand of British Justice. No, scratch that.
The worldwide leader of the Mormon church has been ordered to answer allegations of fraud at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, on pain of arrest if he fails to comply. No, still not quite there.
A malleable judge has been persuaded to use a rarely-used legal procedure in an attempt by a dissatisfied former member to hold a religious organisation to the same standard of proof that one might expect a car manufacturer to be able to guarantee the reliability of its product, in an ego-stroking show trial guaranteed to waste the time and money of everyone involved. There, that’s closer to the mark.
The Telegraph reports on the details of this case, which seems to hinge on the idea that because the Mormon church asks members to tithe a proportion of their income to the church, and because the Mormons cannot offer the same definitive proof of their teachings as I can prove the existence of a physical object such as the computer on which I am typing (Semi-Partisan Sam is not written on golden plates, sadly), their representations amount to a fraud:
A British magistrate has issued an extraordinary summons to the worldwide leader of the Mormon church alleging that its teachings about mankind amount to fraud.
Thomas S. Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London next month to defend the church’s doctrines including beliefs about Adam and Eve and Native Americans.
A formal summons signed by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe warns Mr Monson, who is recognised by Mormons as God’s prophet on Earth, that a warrant for his arrest could be issued if he fails to make the journey from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a hearing on March 14.
In one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court, it lists seven teachings of the church, including that Native Americans are descended from a family of ancient Israelites as possible evidence of fraud.
Where to begin?
Firstly, perhaps, with the observation that perhaps the time has come to discontinue this little-used legal procedure that apparently enables anyone nursing a strong grudge or resentment to haul his or her enemy in front of a magistrate for the purposes of making a public statement of disapproval. The British justice system should not be a plaything for individuals to use to settle personal scores – evidence of criminal behaviour, which is what fraud ultimately is, should be reported to the police and go through the proper channels. The Crown Prosecution Service often manages to make a hash of even those cases that have gone through the first round of scrutiny by law enforcement agencies; what chance do they then have of successfully prosecuting a person or organisation whose guilt is not even taken seriously by the police?
Secondly, the exercise amounts to a waste of public funds. Thomas Monson, President of the church, has already dismissed outright the notion of turning up at Westminster Magistrates’ Court to answer the charges. It just ain’t going to happen. The court to could attempt to satisfy itself by trying Mr. Monson in absentia, perhaps with a laminated mugshot propped in his empty seat, but that will be all the satisfaction that they are likely to receive.
Thirdly, can we really abide a justice system that could potentially make the leader of a fairly significant, relatively harmless (if somewhat quirky) religious faith persona non grata in our country, on pain of arrest by the police, if they fail to drop everything that they are doing and hasten to London to take part in a fatuous show trial?
Finally, and most importantly of all, think on the precedent that this case would set if it were to proceed any further (which it almost certainly will not). Yes, the Mormons believe some quirky things – the translation of the Book of Mormon from gold plates by Joseph Smith, an eyebrow-raising explanation of the origins of the Native American people, and the assertion that the Garden of Eden was located in what is now Jackson County, Missouri, to give away just some of the spoilers. But really, all that separates the claims of the Mormon church from those of other major religions such as mainstream Christianity is the factor of time – the Mormons most recent revelations occurred in the nineteenth century as opposed to the first.
If the Mormon church is to be found guilty of fraud for every instance in which it has received a donation or tithe payment on the basis of their religious teachings, then the Catholic Church and the Church of England should start liquidating assets in preparation for one hell of a large class action lawsuit from their followers. The idea is risible.
And imagine the policework, the investigation that would be required to argue the case in court. The fees racked up on both sides to procure the services of archaeologists, historians, theologians and intellectuals to support their respective arguments would be astronomical. Richard Dawkins would become one of the richest men in Britain.
In seriousness, though, perhaps there are shades of grey in terms of the general principle at stake – the question of whether cults should be in any way criminally liable for duping and conning money out of naive followers. I don’t propose to set that line here, nor do I claim any qualification to do so. But I can comfortably say that the Mormon church is not on the wrong side of that line.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: I don’t want District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe going through my Bible line-by-line and telling me whether or not I have a claim against the Catholic Church. I am a person of faith, but I am uncomfortable enough that religion is so intertwined with the legislature and executive of this country, without also having to fend off probing attacks from the judiciary.
If you were raised a Mormon, or if you were persuaded to convert by one of their charming missionaries, then you almost certainly entered into the religion with a sound mind and a free will. If you later come to stop believing in the mysteries of that faith and decide to leave, that is also your choice. But there’s a clear No Refunds policy at the cash register, and you should not be bothering the courts arguing that you are entitled to one.
So let’s have no more talk of fraud.