SALT LAKE CITY — Legal experts and religious freedom advocates expressed surprise and dismay after a British magistrate summoned LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson to appear in a London court to answer questions about one man's description of Mormon beliefs.
The summons, issued Jan. 31, has been called, among other things, "bizarre," "troubling" and "absurd," by British lawyers, religious freedom advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, and journalists.
British solicitor Harvey Kass told the Arizona Republic the summons is “bizarre” and said: “I can’t imagine how it got through the court process. It would be set aside within 10 seconds, in my opinion.”
Former British prosecutor Neil Addison, who now writes about religious freedom, told the Republic he was astonished to hear of the summons.
“I’m sitting here with an open mouth,” he said. “I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I’m frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it.”
District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe summoned President Monson to appear at the Westminster Magistrates' Court in London on March 14 to answer allegations by a disaffected church member that the faith teaches false doctrines for the purpose of securing financial contributions from members of the church.
British legal experts believe President Monson won't need to appear. First, the case could be summarily dismissed by a higher court, as Kass noted. If not, other church representation is likely to appear on his behalf. Finally, there is no chance the British government would seek extradition or that the United States would grant it, Kass and Addison said.
The allegations were made by a disaffected Mormon, Thomas Phillips, listed in the court documents as living in London, though the Republic said he is living in Portugal. The Telegraph in London reported that Phillips used a rare procedure to launch a private prosecution on behalf of two other disaffected LDS Church members.
Cody Craynor, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, "The church occasionally receives documents like this that seek to draw attention to an individual’s personal grievances or to embarrass church leaders. These bizarre allegations fit into that category.”
Beyond the immediate legal issues, religious freedom advocates struggled with the implications of a summons that would force a religious leader to, as one put it, "defend the veracity of his religion in court."
"Well, in my many years of cataloging British free speech outrages this has to be the most absurd case I’ve come across," wrote the National Review's Charles C.W. Cooke, who went on to add, "As I write seemingly weekly now, how desperately Britain lacks for a First Amendment."
Christian radio host Eric Metaxas, who regularly comments on court developments that impact religious liberty, wrote, "Even more troubling than the summons itself is the idea that a government official, in this case a judge, is fit to pass judgment on the content of people’s beliefs."
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh tackled the controversial summons on his Washington Post blog.
"I think it’s likely that the case will be dropped by the district judge, that (President) 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," Volokh wrote.
He then described how U.S. courts might handle such a claim: "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. "
A senior correspondent for The Week also expects the case to fizzle, "but that doesn't mean the case is unimportant," wrote Damon Linker, author of the 2008 book "The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege."
"On the contrary," Linker continued, "it's part of a broader, troubling trans-Atlantic trend of secular liberalism steamrolling competing, non-liberal visions of the good. The trend marks an important change. Eight years ago I published a book with a subtitle describing how the religious right was placing 'secular America under siege.' Less than a decade later, the dynamic I discussed in the book has reversed itself, with liberalism now shoving traditionalist religion into a corner."