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‘We have to take a stand’: Mormon history scholars file brief against Trump travel ban

Protesters gathered at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection offices in Washington, D.C., on March 7 to oppose the revised travel ban signed by President Trump. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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Muslims fearful that President Trump’s travel ban targets them are finding an ally in scholars of Mormon history.

A group of 19 scholars recently filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit comparing the government’s proposed treatment of Muslims to how it treated Mormons in the 19th century.

“This Court should ensure that history does not repeat itself,” wrote the scholars, only some of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church. The church is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

The court is expected to hear arguments on Trump’s revised ban next month. That ban suspends the admission of new refugees and new visas to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

District court judges in Hawaii and the state of Washington have halted key portions of the ban on the grounds that it likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The scholars don’t take a position on whether the executive order violates the clause or is “otherwise unlawful.”

Trump’s talk — ‘Muslim ban,’ ‘Islam hates us’ — comes back to bite him in court again

“Most relevant to this case, animus against the Mormons led federal officials and lawmakers to attack Mormon immigration,” the scholars said. “In 1879, the Secretary of State sent a circular letter to all American diplomatic officers, calling on them to pressure European governments to prohibit Mormon emigration from their countries.”

Many Americans and even many Mormons have either forgotten or are unaware of this immigration history, according W. Paul Reeve, who teaches classes on Mormon history at the University of Utah. He was among the scholars who signed the brief.

“My hope is that it is a piece of evidence that the courts will consider and help them as they deliberate the course they will take,” Reeve told The Washington Post. “We are a pluralistic society and we value religious pluralism. An attack against one religion is an attack against all religion.”

Read the federal judge’s ruling on Trump’s new travel ban

The scholars said that the federal government carried out a sustained campaign against church members, which included “several measures” to restrict Mormon immigration, which had grown because of a “successful overseas proselytizing program.”

“Latter-day Saints suffered mob violence countenanced by state officials, legal attacks by the federal government, and a crusade of discrimination waged against Mormon immigrants because of their religion,” the court document said.

After the religion was founded in 1830, Mormons were driven out of Missouri by hostile crowds and later endured the same fate in Illinois, where the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, was killed by a mob. The document acknowledges that some of the hostility was due to the Mormon practice of polygamy, which the church officially adopted in 1852 and “publicly abandoned” in 1890.

But the animus toward Mormons existed before polygamy was embraced, the scholars argue. In many cases, it carried overtones of “Islamophobia.”

Mormons “were compared to the supposedly violent and lustful Turks and Arabs; the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was derisively referred to as the ‘American Mohamet,’” the brief said. “In the same vein, critics of Mormonism remarked on the Latter-day Saints’ ‘dangerously’ sympathetic attitude toward Muslims.”

Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University, who signed the brief, said in a statement that Mormons were “among the most reviled” when they came to the United States.

“We have to take a stand with those who flee to America as a refuge,” he said.

Kathleen Flake, who teaches religious studies at the University of Virginia and signed the brief, said the “Mormon ban” showed the lasting, negative impact such measures have on target groups.

“A Muslim ban under whatever name should alarm those who value freedom of conscience, America’s ‘first freedom,’ ” she said.

Read the court brief

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