How to cover the Mormons, England and religious liberty

It goes without saying that Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of the Salt Lake City Tribune has, over the past quarter of a century or so, covered more than her share of stories about doctrinal issues (and disputes) in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the moment, Mormon authorities are caught up in one of the most bizarre religious liberty stories in a year dominated by big religious liberty stories. I wanted to call attention to a recent Stack report on this controversy simply to show GetReligion readers what it looks like when a pro starts nailing down one of these complicated stories.

To cut to the chase: There is a former Mormon in Great Britain who is suing the church for false and misleading doctrine. Honest. Here is a key slice of copy at the very top of the story:

Tom Phillips, a former Mormon bishop and stake president, asserts, among other claims, that LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has "made representations ... which were ... untrue or misleading" -- including that "there was no death on this planet prior to 6,000 years ago" and that "all humans alive today are descended from just two people who lived approximately 6,000 years ago" -- to "make a gain for himself or another."

... A district judge in Westminster Magistrates' Court of London issued a summons to Monson, considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to appear March 14 to answer the charges. And Phillips expects to see the 86-year-old Mormon leader in court -- unless Monson "pleads guilty."

"This is a serious matter," Phillips said Wednesday in a phone interview from his home in England. "If President Monson believes in the Book of Mormon, he will show up. If he has any concern for Mormons in Britain, he will show up. And if he doesn't show up, then an arrest warrant will be issued."

As you would expect, Mormon authorities are outraged.

That's the easy part of the story. It's easy to find church authorities who see this as an outrageous violation of what, in America, would be First Amendment principles. The laws are somewhat different in the United Kingdom, but you have a similar conviction that state authorities are not supposed to get involved in disputes over doctrines and the ties that bind for eternity.

Most reporters quote the angry person. Then they quote the outraged church authority. What makes or breaks the story is the quality of the OTHER INFORMATION in the report.

Early on, Stack uses a solid quote from in interview in The Arizona Republic:

"I'm sitting here with an open mouth," Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on religious freedom told The Republic. "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."

But here is the material that caught my eye. Your GetReligionistas often encourage reporters to give readers one or two paragraphs of background material that put some muscle in the story, giving readers the context to see beyond the shouting matches. In this case, she offers two such passages -- including the legal background behind the lawsuit itself:

The charges are based on Britain's Fraud Act of 2006, meant to prosecute those who misrepresent themselves or their organization to get gain.

Phillips' case is based on seven supposed Mormon claims, which he argues are demonstrably false, including that the Book of Mormon, the church's signature scripture, was translated from ancient gold plates by church founder Joseph Smith; that the Book of Abraham, another text viewed as scripture, is a literal translation of Egyptian papyri by Smith; that Native Americans are descended from an Israelite family, which left Jerusalem in 600 B.C.; along with the above statements about the biblical Adam and Eve.

These are matters that can be disproved in court, he said. "This has nothing to do with religion, theology or doctrine."

And later, the other side of the coin:

Though she could not comment on British law, Sarah Barringer Gordon, a legal expert and historian at University of Pennsylvania, said the United States has similar laws against religious fraud but they cannot be applied to "good-faith practice of religious convictions -- such as promises to cure through prayer, claims of truth (historical or otherwise), and advice on how to lead a happy and productive life."

Gordon cites a 1944 Supreme Court decision regarding alleged mail fraud involving literature produced by the defendants who promised to cure many diseases through the ministrations of a divine messenger.

"Men may believe what they cannot prove," Justice William O. Douglas wrote in the case. " ... Many take their gospel from the New Testament. But it would hardly be supposed that they could be tried before a jury charged with the duty of determining whether those teachings contained false representations."

Any body of scripture, including the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, "is constitutionally protected in the United States," Gordon said. "Historical claims in scripture are not subject to judicial investigation."

It would, of course, be good to have British voices on the specifics. Here is hoping that her editors let Stack continue digging on this subject and, perhaps, even cover the early court proceedings in person.

The bottom line: There are times when you have to let veteran reporters cover complicated stories at the level of sidewalks and court benches. I think this is one of those cases.

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