PHOENIX — The leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear before a magistrate in England on fraud charges filed by a disaffected ex-Mormon who disputes fundamental teachings of the religion, according to documentation obtained by The Arizona Republic.
But some legal experts in England say it is unlikely prosecutors would seek to have him extradited, and they are surprised the summonses were issued at all.
Two summonses direct Thomas S. Monson of Utah, the Church president, to attend a March 14 hearing in the Westminster Magistrates Court of London to answer accusations that key tenets of the LDS faith are untrue and have been used to secure financial contributions.
The criminal complaint was lodged by Tom Phillips, a Mormon who said he withdrew from the Church after holding positions in England as bishop, stake president and area executive secretary. He now serves as managing editor of MormonThink, an online publication that critiques the Church's history and doctrine.
"The Church occasionally receives documents like this that seek to draw attention to an individual's personal grievances or to embarrass Church leaders," said Eric Hawkins, a spokesman at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, who said he had not seen the legal document. "These bizarre allegations fit into that category."
Legal scholars in England expressed bewilderment at the summonses, saying British law precludes challenges to theological beliefs in secular courts.
"I'm sitting here with an open mouth," said Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on religious freedom. "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."
Phillips' complaint is based on the Fraud Act of 2006, a British law that prohibits false representations made to secure a profit, or to cause someone to lose money. Conviction may carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The summonses were signed Jan. 31 by Judge Elizabeth Roscoe. A court official in London confirmed Tuesday the issuance of the paperwork, which directs Monson to answer allegations that untrue religious precepts were used to obtain tithes comprising 10% of church members' incomes. Two British subjects, Stephen Bloor and Christopher Ralph, are identified as victims.
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, referred to the summons as "bizarre," adding, "I can't imagine how it got through the court process. It would be set aside within 10 seconds, in my opinion."
Kass and Addison also said they see no likelihood that the British government would seek to extradite Monson, or that the United States would comply with such a request.
The Utah-based Mormon Church, which claims nearly 15 million members worldwide, is known for its missionary system. Mormons trace their roots to the 1820s in New York, where founder Joseph Smith reported a series of revelations and discoveries. The Church Scriptural canons include the Bible and Book of Mormon, along with writings by Smith and other church leaders.
The Mormon Church historically has altered or clarified some teachings, including those regarding polygamy in the late 1800s. In recent months, revisions have been made to the official church website dealing with teachings on blacks, the priesthood and the Word of Wisdom, a health doctrine banning use of alcohol and tobacco.
A December article in Deseret News, the Church-owned paper in Salt Lake City, said official messages have been changed "to use scholarship, historical perspective and outside resources to help parents transparently answer questions children might come across online."
Phillips listed seven Church teachings that he claims are demonstrably false, including the origins of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, also part of the Church's canon of scripture. "These are not statements of mere 'beliefs' or opinions or theories," he wrote. "They are made as actual facts and their truthfulness can be objectively tested with evidence."
Phillips, who lives in Portugal, provided copies of the summons and related papers to The Republic.
Phillips alleged the Mormon Church in Great Britain has taken in $257 million in member donations since 2007. He said tithes are "mandatory" for good standing in the Church.
Legal experts said private subjects are entitled to initiate criminal allegations in British courts, with judicial affirmation. Once a case begins, crown prosecutors may dismiss charges, assign a solicitor for trial or allow the complainant to proceed. Typically, they said, cases such as this would be transferred out of the lower magistrates' court to a crown court.
Phillips challenges the biblical Book of Genesis, alleging it is fraudulent to assert that "all humans alive today are descended from just two people (Adam and Eve) who lived approximately 6,000 years ago." In a supplemental filing, Phillips argued, "Anthropology, history and DNA studies prove this to be impossible."
In an essay published by Brigham Young University's Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, Mormon genetics researcher Ugo Perego wrote that the Church "advocates no official position on the origins of Amerindian populations." Still, he concluded, it is possible that DNA evidence simply does not reflect past civilizations in the Americas. "The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," he wrote.
According to Phillips' online biography, he converted to Mormonism in 1969 and rose through Church leadership for 33 years. Before leaving the faith in 2004, the biography says, he served as LDS area controller for the British Isles and Africa, and as financial director for corporate entities in the United Kingdom.
Phillips said his belief in LDS doctrines eroded as he began researching questions raised by fellow Mormons. He now describes himself as "a secular humanist or atheist, or whatever you want to call it," adding, "I do not see evidence of God."
Amid the 2012 presidential campaign, Phillips authored a controversial book,Romney's Religion: The Man Who Would Be God.
Doe Daughtrey, a professor of religious studies at Arizona State University and Mesa Community College, said Mormon leaders are attempting to respond to criticisms from inside and outside the fold. "The Church is trying to address these issues, but for people who are upset, I suspect whatever it does will be too little, too late," she said.
Regarding the British criminal complaint, Daughtrey said similar legal challenges have been attempted against other religions in the United States. "I just can't imagine it being successful," she added. "You can't prove religion either way."
Dennis Wagner also reports for The Arizona Republic.