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Expert Comment: Arguing Religion in English Criminal Law

Neil Addison Friday 28 March 2014

Following a court's dismissal of a case against the head of the Mormon Church, barrister in the case and   lecturer in Law at Liverpool Hope Neil Addison, gives his account of the proceedings.

On Friday 31st January a District Judge in Westminster Magistrates Court issued what the Daily Telegraph was to describe as “one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court”.  Two summonses directed to Thomas Monson of Salt Lake City Utah alleged fraud contrary to s1 Fraud Act 2006.  Mr Monson is the current head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon Church) ,equivalent to the Pope, and is regarded in Mormon theology as a living prophet. 

The charges arose as a private prosecution brought by a former Mormon Bishop Tom Phillips and alleged that Mr Monson, as head of the Mormon Church had dishonestly persuaded people to pay Tithes to the Mormon Church on the basis of teachings that were false including the truthfulness of the ‘Book of Abraham’ and the ‘Book of Mormon’ which Mormons believe were translated by their prophet Joseph Smith from Egyptian papyri golden plates.  In addition there were references to the shooting of Joseph Smith in 1844 and to whether humans were actually descended from Adam and Eve.  

 In principle arguments about Religious Doctrine and Belief are non justiciable in  UK

Courts.  In the 1904 House of Lords case of General Assembly of Free Church of

Scotland v Overtoun [1904] AC 515 Lord Davey said

            “My Lords, I disclaim altogether any right in this or any other civil court of this realm to discuss the truth or reasonableness of any of the doctrines of this or any other religious association”

and this principle was repeated by the House of Lords in Secretary of State for Education and Employment ex parte Williamson  [2005] UKHL 15   

            [57] . For the Court to adjudicate on the seriousness, cogency and coherence of theological beliefs is … take the Court beyond its legitimate role.

 The argument put forward by Mr Phillips was that he was not contesting Mormon religious beliefs, he was merely stating that by scientific method he could prove that these documents were false and the Mormon Church were putting them forward as “facts” not belief. 

 That, we argued, rather misses the point.  All religions assert their beliefs as facts, Christ DID rise from the dead, Muhammad WAS visited by an Angel. To attempt to distinguish between “belief” and “assertions of fact” in the context of religion was artificial.  The Courts did not make issues of religion “non justiciable” in order to privilege religion but in order to remain neutral about religion. After all, if courts were allowed to decide that a particular religious belief was false then they would have an equal right to say that it was true which could have seriously unexpected consequences.

On the first appearance the charges were thrown out on the basis that the prosecution was “vexatious” and the issues “non justiciable”. However it likely that others may try to use the legal system in a similar way in the future to attack the Mormons again or some other religion.  The argument is not likely to go away.



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