A disaffected Mormon leader insists the LDS prophet is a fraud — and he’s taking him to a British court in hopes of proving it.
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."
On Friday, 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."
The Utah-based faith and other legal experts see it quite differently.
"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."
British legal scholars "expressed bewilderment at the summonses, saying British law precludes challenges to theological beliefs in secular courts," according to a story 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 Phillips rejects the idea that this is a "frivolous" effort.
"I couldn’t get to this stage if it were frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process," he said. "It’s already passed that. It cannot be thrown out as being frivolous."
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 theBook 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."
To win the case, though, prosecutors would have to prove that not only are these ideas false, but also that Monson knows they are untrue and uses them to "get gain," namely, members’ tithing money.
"If President Monson is acquitted, it will be a great surprise," Phillips said, "but probably because he has very good lawyers who tricked a jury."
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."
Colleen McDannell, a professor of history and religion at the University of Utah, agrees.
"If everything a religion said was brought to a court of law, it would tie up the courts for eternity," McDannell said. "What religion doesn’t have outrageous claims?"
Phillips joined the LDS Church as a 23-year-old husband and father in 1969. He spent the next decades of his life dedicated to the faith, rearing his children as devout Mormons. Then, in 2004, he discovered some of what he viewed as the church’s historical problems and became disillusioned, eventually stepping away.
It cost him his marriage and good relations with his children, said Phillips, now 68. Critics like him are told they have "lost the spirit, are evil and wicked and their family should avoid them."
John Dehlin, a doctoral candidate at Utah State University, has studied the reasons why members leave the LDS Church and empathizes with them.
"One of the most common themes among those he studied was a feeling of being misled by the church," Dehlin said. "Tom Phillips is not alone in feeling that the church hasn’t been forthcoming about its history."
The USU researcher believes Phillips’ goal is publicity, and judging from traffic on MormonThink.com, where Phillips is the managing editor and his case was first described, he’s succeeded. Dehlin said the site racked up more than 800,000 page views Tuesday, the largest day in its history.
For his part, Phillips maintains that his only desire is to get the Mormon prophet to "answer my questions."
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