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British judge rejects case, calls it an 'attack' on LDS

Published: Thursday, March 20 2014 7:20 a.m. MDT

LDS Church Office Building for Mormon Times historic photo comparison Salt Lake City, Utah, July 18, 2008.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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LONDON — In a strongly worded ruling handed down Thursday morning, a British judge dismissed two summonses issued to LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson in January and called them an "abuse" of the court.

"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," Westminster Magistrates' Court Senior District Judge Howard Riddle said in a written ruling. "It is an abuse of the process of the court."

British citizen Tom Phillips, a disaffected Mormon, brought a rare personal prosecution against President Monson on behalf of two other disaffected Latter-day Saints in an attempt to put LDS beliefs on trial.

The judge said that was inappropriate for a United Kingdom court.

"To convict, a jury would need to be sure that the religious teachings of the Mormon Church are untrue or misleading," Riddle said. "No judge in a secular court in England and Wales would allow that issue to be put to a jury."

The LDS Church issued a statement after the hearing.

“We are satisfied with the court’s ruling," church spokesman Cody Craynor said. "This case was a misuse of the legal system and should never have been brought."

Phillips said he would press forward.

“My legal team will leave no stone unturned,” he said in a statement.

The judge also said it was a mistake for the magistrate who issued the summonses to President Monson to state in them that a failure to appear at the court hearings about them could lead to a warrant for his arrest.

"It is common ground that that is wrong," Riddle wrote in his ruling.

Legal experts and religious freedom advocates expressed surprise and dismay after a British magistrate summoned President Monson to appear in a London court to answer questions about Phillips' description of Mormon beliefs.

The two summonses, issued Jan. 31, had been called, among other things, "bizarre," "troubling" and "absurd," by British lawyers, religious freedom advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and journalists.

President Monson did not appear at Thursday's hearing or the initial day-long hearing last week, but he was represented by attorneys, as allowed by British law.

Prior to the first hearing, the LDS Church filed an application with the court asking the judge to summarily dismiss the summonses, arguing that they were abusive and contemptuous.

"This is no more than a vexatious publicity stunt by Thomas Phillips, a disgruntled former member of the church, who in any event does not appear to be authorized to engage in litigation in England," the church's filing said.

James Lewis, an attorney acting on behalf of the church and President Monson, filed the prehearing document with the court and used it to characterize the summonses as "an abuse of the process" that never should have been issued because they allege issues regarding faith.

"The charges as set out are inherently flawed," the document said, "in that they would require a criminal court to adjudicate upon issues of religious doctrine and belief," which are not appropriate for review in a secular court under British law.

The church's argument used wording from past cases in the U.K. to bolster its position: "As the charges are worded, it is impossible for any court to adjudicate upon them without being drawn into arguments regarding the 'truth or reasonableness of the doctrines' of the church and 'to adjudicate on the seriousness, cogency and coherence of theological beliefs' of the church."

The church's position was that Phillips was not authorized under British law to file his complaint. Since that is a criminal offense, the church's filing suggested he was guilty of contempt of court. The church also asked the court to rule that Phillips pay for the church's legal costs.

Riddle's written ruling on Thursday said he did not need to rule on the question of contempt at this time, and that he chose not to do so.

The church's application said it would be similarly inappropriate for a court to consider whether Roman Catholic relics such as the Shroud of Turin are true artifacts or whether relics attributed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad are genuine.

The LDS Church "regards Joseph Smith as a prophet inspired by God and regards the Book of Mormon as Holy Scripture," the application for dismissal stated. "Any question therefore as to the origin, provenance or teachings of the Book of Mormon" isn't appropriate for the same reasons.

Phillips is not a British barrister, but he initiated the case on Oct. 10 by bringing information to District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe under a seldom-used British law that allows for prosecution by a private person. The information alleged that Stephen Bloor and Christopher Denis Ralph were victims of fraud based on LDS religious teachings that led them to pay tithing to the church.

Phillips' statement Thursday morning said, “Although this ruling represents a setback for our cause, we remain steadfast in our commitment to bring the LDS Corporation to justice."

On Jan. 31, Roscoe issued the two summonses for President Monson to appear in court on March 14.

In his own pre-hearing written argument, Phillips asked through an attorney that the prosecution proceed and argued he did indeed have a right to file the case "as a private prosecutor litigant in person."

He said he was not representing Bloor and Ralph, as the church claimed, but was only naming them as victims.

Phillips conceded religious belief may not be an issue that can be judicially reviewed in a civil proceeding, but argued that religious teaching is subject to the limits of criminal law. So, for example, he cited instances in British law where illegal cannabis smoking cannot be shielded from prosecution because of a claim of religious belief.

Phillips contended that certain claims about the translation of LDS scriptures, about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and about teachings related to the creation of the Earth rise to the level of criminal fraud and therefore cannot be shielded from prosecution.

He argued that rather than dismiss the issues, their admissibility should be held for a trial.

"The prosecution is not vexatious, or otherwise an abuse of the court," Phillips' filing said.

Riddle disagreed.

"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," he wrote in his ruling. "The purpose is to use the criminal proceedings" to attack the church.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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