English judge dismisses private fraud prosecution against Mormon Church

Here’s an excerpt from the judge’s opinion in Phillips v. Monson:

It is obvious that this proposed prosecution attacks the doctrine and beliefs of the Mormon Church, and is aimed at those beliefs rather than any wrong-doing of Mr Monson personally. The purpose is to use criminal proceedings to expose the false (it is said) facts on which the church is based.

It is inevitable that the prosecution would never reach a jury, even if Mr Monson chooses to attend. To convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon Church are untrue or misleading. That proposition is at the heart of the case. No judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury. It is non-justiciable.

I am satisfied that the process of the court is being manipulated to provide a high-profile forum to attack the religious beliefs of others. It is an abuse of the process of the court.

Private prosecutions, which are apparently little-used in England today, involve a private individual claiming that a criminal law has been violated and asking a court to start a criminal prosecution based on those claims.

Here’s what Thomas Phillips, who tried to bring the prosecution, alleged, according to the summons (which I blogged about last month):

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

I’m no expert on English law, but the judge’s decision in dismissing the prosecution was sound, for the reasons the judge gives: It shouldn’t be up to secular courts to determine the truth or falsehood of these sorts of religious claims, or even the sincerity or insincerity of the religious leaders who make such claims. (What to do about more present-focused religious claims, such as claims that the speaker can heal by prayer if only he is paid enough money, is a more complex question.)

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.
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