HYDERABAD, India — Some Mormon immigrants in the 1800s were refused entry into the United States, jailed at the border or pressured to renounce their faith and convert to Protestantism.
On Thursday, 21 scholars in Mormon history filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to consider that history and the negative results when the justices consider President Trump's travel ban in October.
In 1879, U.S. Secretary of State William M. Everts issued a temporary ban on immigration by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Most Americans have a story about ancestors who came as immigrants to the United States, many under pressure," said Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of "Rough Stone Rolling," the definitive biography of Joseph Smith. "Mormons were among the most reviled when they came. We have to take a stand with those who flee to America as a refuge.”
Nathan Oman, a Mormon law professor at William & Mary, wrote the brief with the California Appellate Law Group's Anna-Rose Mathieson, who represented the scholars before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Nineteen of the scholars had filed an earlier amicus brief before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit attacking the Trump travel ban.
Oman said then that the brief provides the court with an opportunity to scrutinize the executive order in a way that didn't exist when the U.S. government acted against Mormons.
The scholars' argument is that temporary bans tend to expand into law and lead to unexpected and negative long-term ramifications. In the case of 19th century Mormons, Congress dissolved the church as a legal entity, seized its assets and revoked the right of Mormon women to vote.
The brief concluded that "This court has long-held that the judiciary has a special role in scrutinizing government action motivated by 'prejudice against discrete and insular minorities.' And as this court has explained, 'facial neutrality' cannot shield '[o]fficial action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment.' Amici thus respectfully urge the court to subject the executive order to close scrutiny for a religious animus to prevent repeating the harms of the past."
During his election campaign, Trump said he would ban Muslim immigrants and issued a press release calling “‘for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’”
The day after, the LDS Church issued a statement in response that quoted church founder Joseph Smith: “I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”
Editor's note: Tad Walch is traveling in India on assignment.