English court summons head of Mormon church to answer charges that Mormon religious claims are fraud

Here’s what appears to be the summons issued by the Westminster Magistrates’ Court:

Information has been laid by Thomas Phillips of Kemp House, 152-160 City Road, London EC14 2 NX, UK

Before me the undersigned

That between 3rd February 2008 and 31st December 2013 dishonestly and intending thereby to make a gain for himself or another or a loss or risk of loss to another made or caused to be made representations to Stephen Colin Bloor, which were and which you knew were or might be untrue or misleading and thereby induce the said Stephen Colin Bloor to pay an annual tithe to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, namely that

i) The Book of Abraham is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Joseph Smith.

ii) The Book of Mormon was translated from ancient gold plates by Joseph Smith is the most correct book on earth and is an ancient historical record.

iii) Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.

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

v) The Illinois newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor had to be destroyed because it printed lies about Joseph Smith.

vi) There was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago.

vii) All humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago.

Contrary to section 1 of the Fraud Act 2006

You are therefore summoned to appear before Westminster Magistrates’ Court, 181 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 SBA on 14/03/2014 at 10AM in Courtroom 6 to answer the said information

Failure to attend may result in a warrant being issued for your arrest.

The Telegraph (UK) report says that

[The summons] was issued in response to a private prosecution attempt by Tom Phillips, a disaffected former Mormon who now runs MormonThink a website highly critical of the church.

Under little-used legal procedures, people who say they have evidence that someone has committed a crime can ask a magistrate to issue a summons requiring them to attend a court hearing.

The district judge would then decide whether or not to proceed with a case or dismiss it.

I think it’s likely that the case will be dropped by the district judge, that Monson will not even be required to show up, and that the Mormon church in England will not be fined or otherwise punished for his failure to show up. (I doubt that English courts could directly force Monson to appear, but the Mormon church doubtless has property in England, over which English courts do have jurisdiction.) Still, it’s an interesting case, and less extreme versions of it arise at times, for instance if someone seeks money by falsely claiming that he has healed people through prayer, or that he regularly physically meets angels and will intercede with them on behalf of his supporters.

How such a prosecution (or a similar civil lawsuit) would come out under American law is an interesting question. (I don’t know enough to speak about English law on the subject, I’m afraid.) The leading Supreme Court precedent on the subject is United States v. Ballard (1944), which concludes that religious leaders who get contributions based on their religious statements can be prosecuted for fraud if they don’t honestly believe their claims, though a jury can’t decide whether the claims are in fact true or false. Here’s the Court’s summary of the facts in Ballard:

Respondents were … convicted for using … the mails to defraud … by organizing and promoting the I Am movement through the use of the mails. The charge was that certain designated corporations were formed, literature distributed and sold, funds solicited, and memberships in the I Am movement sought “by means of false and fraudulent representations, pretenses and promises.” The false representations charged … covered respondents’ alleged religious doctrines or beliefs…. The following are representative:

“that Guy W. Ballard, now deceased, alias Saint Germain, Jesus, George Washington, and Godfre Ray King, had been selected and thereby designated by the alleged ‘ascertained masters,’ Saint Germain, as a divine messenger; and that the words of ‘ascended masters’ and the words of the alleged divine entity, Saint Germain, would be transmitted to mankind through the medium of the said Guy W. Ballard;

“that Guy W. Ballard, during his lifetime, and Edna W. Ballard, and Donald Ballard, by reason of their alleged high spiritual attainments and righteous conduct, had been selected as divine messengers through which the words of the alleged ‘ascended masters,’ including the alleged Saint Germain, would be communicated to mankind under the teachings commonly known as the ‘I Am’ movement;

“that Guy W. Ballard, during his lifetime, and Edna W. Ballard and Donald Ballard had, by reason of supernatural attainments, the power to heal persons of ailments and diseases and to make well persons afflicted with any diseases, injuries, or ailments, and did falsely represent to persons intended to be defrauded that the three designated persons had the ability and power to cure persons of those diseases normally classified as curable and also of diseases which are ordinarily classified by the medical profession as being incurable diseases; and did further represent that the three designated persons had in fact cured either by the activity of one, either, or all of said persons, hundreds of persons afflicted with diseases and ailments.” …

[T]he indictment … alleged: “At the time of making all of the afore-alleged representations …, … the defendants … well knew that [the] representations were false … and were made with the intention on the part of the defendants … to obtain from persons intended to be defrauded by the defendants, money, property, and other things of value ….” …

As I mentioned, the Court concluded that the defendants could be punished if they didn’t sincerely believe their claims, though they couldn’t be punished just on the theory that their claims were false. And while determining the sincerity of belief is risky business, it’s something courts do indeed do — for instance, when people are claiming some religious or conscientious exemptions (say, from the draft).

On the other hand, Ballard involved defendants’ claims about their personal experience, not claims about alleged historical events more than a century (or several millennia) in the past. There, United States v. Alvarez (2012) might block prosecution; both the two-Justice concurrence and the three-Justice dissent suggested that “[l]aws restricting false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and other matters of public concern” may be unconstitutional, because they threaten to punish true statements as well as false ones. (The four-Justice plurality did not disagree on this point.) This language could be read as foreclosing all fraud prosecutions based on religious claims used to get contributions, even when the speaker is claiming that he has personally seen or done something, but it could also be the basis for drawing a historical claims vs. personal experience claims line.

Also, Ballard included what was one of my favorite court opinions — Justice Jackson’s dissent. I’m inclined to agree more with the majority on the facts of Ballard, and indeed all the Justices but Jackson thought that the Ballards’ actions were constitutionally unprotected. Nonetheless, the dissent strikes me as a model of clear, concrete, plainspeaking eloquence, whether you agree with it or not. Anyone who’s interested in how to use facts and everyday experiences in crafting an argument ought to read it:

I should say the defendants have done just that for which they are indicted. If I might agree to their conviction without creating a precedent, I cheerfully would do so. I can see in their teachings nothing but humbug, untainted by any trace of truth. But that does not dispose of the constitutional question whether misrepresentation of religious experience or belief is prosecutable; it rather emphasizes the danger of such prosecutions….

In the first place, as a matter of either practice or philosophy I do not see how we can separate an issue as to what is believed from considerations as to what is believable. The most convincing proof that one believes his statements is to show that they have been true in his experience. Likewise, that one knowingly falsified is best proved by showing that what he said happened never did happen.

How can the Government prove these persons knew something to be false which it cannot prove to be false? If we try religious sincerity severed from religious verity, we isolate the dispute from the very considerations which in common experience provide its most reliable answer.

In the second place, any inquiry into intellectual honesty in religion raises profound psychological problems. William James, who wrote on these matters as a scientist, reminds us that it is not theology and ceremonies which keep religion going. Its vitality is in the religious experiences of many people. “If you ask what these experiences are, they are conversations with the unseen, voices and visions, responses to prayer, changes of heart, deliverances from fear, inflowings of help, assurances of support, whenever certain persons set their own internal attitude in certain appropriate ways.”

If religious liberty includes, as it must, the right to communicate such experiences to others, it seems to me an impossible task for juries to separate fancied ones from real ones, dreams from happenings, and hallucinations from true clairvoyance. Such experiences, like some tones and colors, have existence for one, but none at all for another. They cannot be verified to the minds of those whose field of consciousness does not include religious insight. When one comes to trial which turns on any aspect of religious belief or representation, unbelievers among his judges are likely not to understand and are almost certain not to believe him.

And then I do not know what degree of skepticism or disbelief in a religious representation amounts to actionable fraud. James points out that “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.” Belief in what one may demonstrate to the senses is not faith. All schools of religious thought make enormous assumptions, generally on the basis of revelations authenticated by some sign or miracle. The appeal in such matters is to a very different plane of credulity than is invoked by representations of secular fact in commerce.

Some who profess belief in the Bible read literally what others read as allegory or metaphor, as they read Aesop’s fables. Religious symbolism is even used by some with the same mental reservations one has in teaching of Santa Claus or Uncle Sam or Easter bunnies or dispassionate judges. It is hard in matters so mystical to say how literally one is bound to believe the doctrine he teaches and even more difficult to say how far it is reliance upon a teacher’s literal belief which induces followers to give him money….

If the members of the [“I Am”] sect get comfort from the celestial guidance of their “Saint Germain,” however doubtful it seems to me, it is hard to say that they do not get what they pay for. Scores of sects flourish in this country by teaching what to me are queer notions. It is plain that there is wide variety in American religious taste. The Ballards are not alone in catering to it with a pretty dubious product.

The chief wrong which false prophets do to their following is not financial. The collections aggregate a tempting total, but individual payments are not ruinous. I doubt if the vigilance of the law is equal to making money stick by over-credulous people.

But the real harm is on the mental and spiritual plane. There are those who hunger and thirst after higher values which they feel wanting in their humdrum lives. They live in mental confusion or moral anarchy and seek vaguely for truth and beauty and moral support. When they are deluded and then disillusioned, cynicism and confusion follow.

The wrong of these things, as I see it, is not in the money the victims part with half so much as in the mental and spiritual poison they get. But that is precisely the thing the Constitution put beyond the reach of the prosecutor, for the price of freedom of religion or of speech or of the press is that we must put up with, and even pay for, a good deal of rubbish.

Prosecutions of this character easily could degenerate into religious persecution. I do not doubt that religious leaders may be convicted of fraud for making false representations on matters other than faith or experience, as for example if one represents that funds are being used to construct a church when in fact they are being used for personal purposes. But that is not this case, which reaches into wholly dangerous ground.

When does less than full belief in a professed credo become actionable fraud if one is soliciting gifts or legacies? Such inquiries may discomfort orthodox as well as unconventional religious teachers, for even the most regular of them are sometimes accused of taking their orthodoxy with a grain of salt. I would dismiss the indictment and have done with this business of judicially examining other people’s faiths.

Thanks to Robert Woolley for the pointer to the Telegraph story.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read National
Next Story
Ilya Somin · February 5