Court Is No Place to Debate Validity of Religion

(CN) — A court cannot decide the validity of a religion’s beliefs, a federal judge said Tuesday in dismissing a lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from a disenchanted former church member.

Online research showed Laura Gaddy that the historical record differed from the teachings of the church in which she grew up. She sued the church last August on claims that included racketeering and fraud.

The Preston family cheer at Salt Lake City International Airport on March 22, 2020, as they see Elder Kaleb Preston returning from his mission in the Philippines. (Rick Egan/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

The church, which boasts 16 million members worldwide, countered that it is protected by the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby agreed.

“Consider the statement ‘Jesus Christ was resurrected three days after he died,’” the Obama appointee wrote in his 21-page opinion. “Is that a statement of fact or belief? The answer depends, of course, on who is answering the question.

“To most Christians, the statement is a fact — though not verifiable using defined scientific methods, believers accept the reality of Christ’s resurrection much as they accept that there are 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week,” Shelby wrote. “On the other hand, those outside of Christianity may view the resurrection as abjectly false, an impossible event no more factual than the tales of the Brothers Grimm.”

Similarly, Shelby said the court is unable to parse out which account of Joseph Smith’s divine encounter — if any — is accurate. The church teaches that Joseph Smith met God and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees in 1820, and was told to start the church.

But Gaddy uncovered several other accounts that challenge the so-called “first vision,” from stories that Smith saw angels to his own handwritten account in which Smith said that God came to forgive his sins — not to start a church.

In her 75-page class action lawsuit, Gaddy said, “The material facts upon which Mormonism is based have been manipulated through intentional concealment, misrepresentation, distortion and or obfuscation by the [LDS] to contrive an inducement to faith in Mormonism’s core beliefs.”

Gaddy also raised the question of Egyptian papyri said to have been translated by Smith into the Book of Abraham, depicting the prophet’s early life. When Egyptologists translated what were believed to be the same documents in the 20th century, they were found to “depict ordinary Egyptian funerary rights and do not mention the prophet Abraham.”

The court cannot settle the question of whether the hieroglyphs were more accurately translated by academics or prophets. 

“Each of these alleged misrepresentations directly implicates the Church’s core beliefs,” Shelby wrote.  “Because a statement’s falsity is an essential element of fraud claims, adjudicating these claims would require the court to do exactly what the Supreme Court has forbidden — evaluate the truth or falsity of the Church’s religious beliefs.”

Still, Shelby did not close the book for good: In dismissing the case without prejudice, he gave Gaddy the opportunity to amend her complaint if she chooses.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not respond to a request for comment.

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