The Book of Mormon in Court

July 27, 2004 | one comment
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I think that most people know that passages from the Bible pop up from time to time in judicial opinions. For example, many old common law rules turned on the distinction between acts that were malum in se (that is wrong in and of themselves) and malum prohibitum (that is wrong simply because they are legally proscribed). The Ten Commandments were regularly used as a touchstone in making this distinction. The question presents itself: What sort of a life – if any – has the Book of Mormon led in the pages of the court reporters?

Modern references to the Book of Mormon seem to take one of two forms. First, the Book of Mormon is referred to in a pro forma way along with other religious books (generally the Bible and the Koran) to make some subsidiary point, e.g. all religions teach that stealing is wrong, etc. etc. Second, the Book of Mormon appears as a character in inmate litigation. There are a large number of jailhouse lawyers who spend their time cooking up new lawsuits to be filed against prison officials. One of the favorite tactics is for inmates to create syncretic and wildly idiosyncratic religious belief systems that they can then use as the basis of religious discrimination and free exercise claims. Apparently, many of these religious entrepreneurs draw from the Book of Mormon, in addition to the Bible, the Koran, and whatever other scripture they can find in the prison library to create their theologies. These claims almost always lose.

Modern judicial usage of the Book of Mormon, however, represents progress of sorts. The earliest case I have seen referencing the Book of Mormon is Turner v. Hand, 24 F.Cases 355 (C.C.N.J. 1855). The case, which was decided by the Federal Circuit Court for the District of New Jersey (the 19th century equivalent of the federal district court) in 1855, involved a challenge to a will. There are basically two ways of breaking a will. First, you show that the document itself is somehow infirm, e.g. no witnesses, not the testator’s signature, etc. Second, you show that the maker of the will was bonkers, a condition that the law politely refers to as “the absence of testamentary capacity.” In the Turner case, the issue was whether or not Mr. Jonathan Meeker was nuts when he executed his will. As evidence of this, the party challenging the will produced testimony that Mr. Meeker . . . you guessed it . . . had been know to actually read the Book of Mormon! (The bereaved family was no doubt scandalized.) The court was ultimately not persuaded, but it is worth noting that Mr. Meeker does not appear to have been an actual Mormon. If he had believed the Book of Mormon, in addition to simply reading it, then the case may well have come out differently!

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One Response to The Book of Mormon in Court

  1. Ian R on July 28, 2004 at 12:25 pm

    In all, there are 42 cases in the Federal and State Reporters that mention the BoM. They mostly involve free exercise and establishment issues.

    The following cases all at least mention the BoM. I have not yet found one that actually uses it as a per se standard.

    Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002) (An establishment case citing the BoM in a footnote)

    Corporation of Presiding Bishop of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327, 330, n. 4 (1987). (A well known case in LDS Lawyer circles)

    Sutton v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236 (3rd Cir. 2002) (Nation of Islam plaintiffs use the BoM in an effort to establish that a past policy unconsitutionally limmitted their access to religous materials. They argued that Prison officials would not have limmitted Mormons to Old and New Testament materials.)

    There are many other prison cases that reference the BoM.

    There are some cases in which the Church was involved and the court referenced the BoM to explain the term “Mormons”.

    In re Marriage of Mentry, 142 Cal. App. 3d 260 (1983) (This is a case where a divorced father sought review of an order limitting his ability to expose his kids to religous activity. The ex-wife/mother had gone anti and alleged abuse. The court ruled for Dad and said the kids could go to Church).

    There are a few other cases that involve publishing and copyright issues.

    There is also a case involving the “Church of Marijuana” that references the BoM. Sounds like an interesting ward.