How to cover the Mormons, England and religious liberty

It goes without saying that Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake City Tribune has, over the past quarter of a century or so, covered more than her share of stories about doctrinal issues (and disputes) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At the moment, Mormon authorities are caught up in one of the most bizarre religious liberty stories in a year dominated by big religious liberty stories. I wanted to call attention to a recent Stack report on this controversy simply to show GetReligion readers what it looks like when a pro starts nailing down one of these complicated stories.

To cut to the chase: There is a former Mormon in Great Britain who is suing the church for false and misleading doctrine. Honest. Here is a key slice of copy at the very top of the story:

Tom Phillips, a former Mormon bishop and stake president, asserts, among other claims, that LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has “made representations … which were … untrue or misleading” — including that “there was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago” and that “all humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago” — to “make a gain for himself or another.”

… A district judge in Westminster Magistrates’ Court of London issued a summons to Monson, considered a “prophet, seer and revelator” in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to appear March 14 to answer the charges. And Phillips expects to see the 86-year-old Mormon leader in court — unless Monson “pleads guilty.”

“This is a serious matter,” Phillips said Wednesday in a phone interview from his home in England. “If President Monson believes in the Book of Mormon, he will show up. If he has any concern for Mormons in Britain, he will show up. And if he doesn’t show up, then an arrest warrant will be issued.”

As you would expect, Mormon authorities are outraged.

That’s the easy part of the story. It’s easy to find church authorities who see this as an outrageous violation of what, in America, would be First Amendment principles. The laws are somewhat different in the United Kingdom, but you have a similar conviction that state authorities are not supposed to get involved in disputes over doctrines and the ties that bind for eternity.

Most reporters quote the angry person. Then they quote the outraged church authority. What makes or breaks the story is the quality of the OTHER INFORMATION in the report.

Early on, Stack uses a solid quote from in interview in The Arizona Republic:

“I’m sitting here with an open mouth,” Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on religious freedom told The Republic. “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.”

But here is the material that caught my eye. Your GetReligionistas often encourage reporters to give readers one or two paragraphs of background material that put some muscle in the story, giving readers the context to see beyond the shouting matches. In this case, she offers two such passages — including the legal background behind the lawsuit itself:

The charges are based on Britain’s Fraud Act of 2006, meant to prosecute those who misrepresent themselves or their organization to get gain.

Phillips’ case is based on seven supposed Mormon claims, which he argues are demonstrably false, including that the Book of Mormon, the church’s signature scripture, was translated from ancient gold plates by church founder Joseph Smith; that the Book of Abraham, another text viewed as scripture, is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Smith; that Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family, which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.; along with the above statements about the biblical Adam and Eve.

These are matters that can be disproved in court, he said. “This has nothing to do with religion, theology or doctrine.”

And later, the other side of the coin:

Though she could not comment on British law, Sarah Barringer Gordon, a legal expert and historian at University of Pennsylvania, said 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 cites 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 said. “Historical claims in scripture are not subject to judicial investigation.”

It would, of course, be good to have British voices on the specifics. Here is hoping that her editors let Stack continue digging on this subject and, perhaps, even cover the early court proceedings in person.

The bottom line: There are times when you have to let veteran reporters cover complicated stories at the level of sidewalks and court benches. I think this is one of those cases.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • James Scott

    Can I sue New Atheists because neither Positivism nor Materialism are true?

    • Andy_the_same

      Only if they knowingly present you with incomplete or false evidence of either, and convince you to give them money based on that evidence.

      • James Scott

        Good to know since AG Flew at the height of his Atheism in the 50′s rejected positivism as hopelessly incoherent. Also materialism can’t be proved scientifically it can only be argued philosophically and the philosophical arguments for them are not good.

  • Darren Blair

    the church’s signature scripture, was translated from ancient gold plates by church founder Joseph Smith

    Dunno about British law, but under American law this statement here presents a big technicality that could bog the courts down.

    The technicality?

    What the plates were made out of.

    As noted in this here article – http://www.lds.org/new-era/2007/07/what-did-the-golden-plates-look-like?lang=eng&query=appearance+of+gold – neither Joseph Smith nor the people who witnessed the plates explicitly said that they were gold, just that they had the appearance of gold; furthermore, pure gold would have been too heavy & too soft for this purpose, and so the metal was most likely a gold alloy.

    Thus, the man would – under American law – potentially be required to explicitly cite instances in which the term “gold plates” was used as anything more than a(n over-)simplification of a concept.

    I’d love to see a legal expert’s take on that one. Perhaps in a follow-up article, maybe?

    • http://www.mormon.me.uk/ Mormon Me

      Perhaps you’re missing the point. The Book of Mormon is a 19th Century
      work of fiction that plagiarises the 17th Century KJV of the Bible
      numerous times, including several known translation mistakes found in
      only that particular version of the KJ Bible, which prove beyond any
      doubt the B.O.M. is fake. There were no Gold or even Gold ‘looking’
      plates. He made it all up.

      This is the best explanation i’ve found to date explaining. Do yourself a favour and educate yourself.

      http://youtu.be/GAGasQ7j_ZI

      • Darren Blair

        1. I’ve been doing battle with anti-Mormon pundits for about 14 years now and have amassed a larger collection of anti-Mormon material that some ministers. In that sense, I am, indeed, “educated” in the matter.

        2. I don’t have 90 minutes of my time to just sit and watch some random video, and I doubt that most of the people who post here have that time, either. You’ll need to post an executive summary.

        • http://www.mormon.me.uk/ Mormon Me

          One day you’ll wake up and realise these evil “Anti-Mormons” you’ve been doing battle with all these years are mostly regular, good, honest people who have discovered the truth for themselves. When that day comes you might find 90 minutes out of your busy schedule to take a good honest look at the facts and the truth.

          I’m not Anti-Mormon. I’m Pro-Truth.

          • Darren Blair

            Those “good, honest people” have lied to my face on multiple occasions, and a few have even threatened me with bodily harm.

          • http://www.mormon.me.uk/ Mormon Me

            Are you sure you’re a heterosexual Mormon?
            You sound like a complete drama queen. I love it. Perhaps it’s your ‘battle’ stance that sets people off? LOL

          • Darren Blair

            You are, in fact, the second “good, honest Christian” to gay-bash me rather than address any of the points that I have raised, and so if you were going for shock value by questioning my sexuality then it’s not working.

            As far as the “battle stance” quip goes, it was you who initiated this by launching into a broadside in response to a post that was largely unrelated to the item you wished to explode over.

            Furthermore, I am still waiting for that executive summary.

          • http://www.mormon.me.uk/ Mormon Me

            What an odd thing to say. I’m neither a Christian or ‘Gay Bashing’ you. LOL. I do think you’re being a little melodramatic.

            Executive summary: The video I posted shows quite clearly that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work of fiction. Written by Joseph Smith Jr. It shows a mountain of evidence supporting this theory.

            Instead of being angry why don’t you just watch it? It won’t hurt you.

          • Darren Blair

            You apparently do not realize how you sound, nor do you apparently realize what an “executive summary” is.

            Your “summary” tells me nothing about the “arguments” presented in the video, nor does it tell me who is presenting them. Whether you want to admit it or not, several anti-Mormon pundits are on par with Stephen Glass in terms of “trustworthiness”.

          • bytebear

            Watch out, Darren. You might inherit a stalker. I did.

          • Darren Blair

            Wouldn’t be the first time.

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel M. Campbell

    The claim about the historical Adam and Eve and a 6,000-year-old young earth creationism seems rather funny to me, as I was under the impression that the LDS did not, in fact, object to the theory of evolution and did not espouse a Ken-Ham-style young earth creationism.

    • Andy_the_same

      The LDS take on Adam and Eve requires a literal Adam and Eve, because the “Fall” is a literal event in their theology. Also, according to their scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants 77, the earth is ~6,000 years old, with a maximum age of 7,000 literal (not metaphoric) years:

      http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/77

      That said, many members actually accept evolution and a 4.54 billion-year-old earth. They either don’t realize that their doctrine runs counter to this, or just try not to think about the inconsistency.

      • Darren Blair

        As far as the age of the Earth goes, Abraham 3 (http://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/abr/3.4?lang=eng#3 ) notes that God marked the days of creation using the rotations of a star known as Kolob, with “one day” of Kolob’s rotation being a thousand human years.

        In this sense, the church holds that the Earth is closer to 13,000 years.

        Even then, as my response to Nathaniel notes, the church won’t say anything if individual members go OEC instead of YEC.

    • Darren Blair

      The church’s official stance on matters is, in a nutshell, “science is for the classroom, and religion is for the church. It’s a happy day when the two agree, but if not then it means that more research needs to be done.”

      In that sense, while the theology supports YEC, the leadership won’t say anything if anyone chooses to favor Old-Earth Creationism (that is: God using evolution and other methods to create everything) or another alternate hypothesis provided that they aren’t forcing their views on others.

  • Joe

    state authorities are not supposed to get involved in disputes over doctrines and the ties that bind for eternity.

    Hopefully “the ties that bind for eternity” is an idiom since presumably you’re only guessing about the “ties that bind for eternity” bit. I guess it wouldn’t sound as much like you know what you are talking about if you said “the ties that at least I think maybe bind for eternity maybe, or so they tell me. That’s what I believe anyway but I really don’t know for sure. Your mileage may vary.” If it’s an idiom it’s a great one because it makes it look like you know what you are talking about. Gotta keep up appearances.

  • OregonDavid

    It’s time then to put Queen Elizabeth on trial since she’s the de-facto leader of The Church of England. The logic of the English courts is just part of the reason why the Scots are going to vote for their referendum for independence on September 18th, 2014. Please help get out the vote….

  • Grotoff

    As an atheist, this seems pretty crazy. I could see someone suing Scientology, which is a blatant horrific money grab. But Mormonism? They aren’t saying those things to take your money. They really believe them.

  • Voiceofreason1

    The man Tom Phillips does not live in London but Portugal. This is the most bizarre case I have ever seen? And the weather is crazy too! It has never been so cold in the south. What does the future hold?!

  • Jettboy

    You obviously haven’t read the article close enough because nowhere is there any quotes that support the claim, “As you would expect, Mormon authorities are outraged.” None of them are quoted. At best you get a spokesman who is bemused:

    “The LDS Church occasionally receives documents like this that seek to draw attention to an individual’s personal grievances or to embarrass church leaders,” LDS spokesman Cody Craynor said. “These bizarre allegations fit into that category.”

    In other words, I doubt that President Monson, or any authority of the LDS Church, will be going to England any time soon for a trial of any kind. They will pretty much shrug it off as inconsequential.

  • Ben

    I love how my post, which actually did pose a journalism question/comment, got removed, but the 20 remaining here address nothing about the journalism.

  • bytebear

    “As you would expect, Mormon authorities are outraged.”

    I haven’t seen any comments or statements from Mormon authorities on this subject. Based on past experience, I suspect they are simply ignoring this. It’s not like they haven’t had similar experiences throughout their history.

    • Darren Blair

      Finally managed to get through to the Newsroom on the church website (I’ve been having issues with my wireless lately) and I’m not seeing a thing as of the time of this here posting.

      Here’s the link if anyone wants to look – http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/ .


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