Courts discuss whether LDS members are Christians

I wanted to bring to your attention this very interesting case in which courts discussed whether or not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christian.

To sum up: a superior court ruled that the Church is not Christian, but an appeals court determined this is not an issue that secular courts can judge. I will quote extensively from the original article on the Volokh Conspiracy:

From In re Ball v. Ball, decided yesterday by the Arizona Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Paul J. McMurdie, joined by Judge Maria Elena Cruz joined:

Mother and Father married in November 1999 and have two minor children. In December 2017, Mother petitioned for dissolution. The parties represented themselves during the initial dissolution proceedings, and the court entered a default decree (“Decree”). Filed simultaneously with the Decree was a parenting plan, signed by both parents, that they prepared using a court-provided form (“Parenting Plan”). The court adopted the Parenting Plan’s terms as part of the Decree. The Parenting Plan provisions relevant to this appeal are as follows:

Approximately one year after the divorce, Father joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“Father’s Church”), and the children occasionally joined him at meetings. After Mother learned the children were accompanying Father to his church, she petitioned to enforce the Parenting Plan, claiming Father’s Church is not Christian. Mother also asserted other violations of the Parenting Plan.

The superior court held two hearings on the enforcement petition. During the second hearing, Mother called a youth ministry leader from her church to testify that Father’s Church is not Christian. After taking the matter under advisement, the superior court held that the Parenting Plan directs that “the Children shall only be instructed in the Christian faith” and that Father’s Church was not “Christian” within the meaning of the Parenting Plan. For these reasons, the court held that Father could not take the children to Father’s Church’s services. The court also found that Father had violated other Parenting Plan provisions and granted Mother an award of attorney’s fees….

Father appealed, and the court ruled in his favor. First, it concluded that the parenting plan didn’t require the parents to raise their children Christian, but merely allowed it:

The first clause of the religious-education section of the Parenting Plan unambiguously states that “[e]ach parent may take the minor children to a church or place of worship of his or her choice during the time that the minor children is/are in his or her care.” This language permits Father to take the children to any “place of worship,” be it “Christian” or “non-Christian.” Nothing in the second clause explicitly limits or narrows this authority…..

Adopting Mother’s assertion that the second clause limits the parents’ rights under the first clause would render the first meaningless because the parents could no longer take the children to a church or place of worship of their choice. Instead, the second clause is permissive and ensures that the “children may be instructed in the Christian faith.” This interpretation gives effect to both clauses in the Parenting Plan’s religious-education section.

But the court went on to add:

Even if the second clause might constrain Father’s right under the first clause, we would nonetheless vacate the superior court’s holding because the court violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when it ruled that Father’s Church is not Christian or part of the Christian Faith…..

The Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment … “preclude civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters.” …. “[E]cclesiastical matters include ‘a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.'” …. “[D]epending on the circumstances, civil courts can resolve at least some church-related disputes through neutral principles of law so long as the case is resolved without inquiry into church doctrine or belief.”

Here, the court dove into an ecclesiastical matter by addressing whether Father’s Church is part of the Christian faith. That very question has long been a matter of theological debate in the United States. A secular court must avoid ruling on such issues to prevent the appearance that government favors one religious view over another.

Moreover, although the question was presented within the context of interpreting the Parenting Plan, the court did not resolve it through neutral principles of law but instead engaged in the exact type of inquiry into church doctrine or belief that the First Amendment prohibits. At the second evidentiary hearing, the court: (1) described the issue as “what is or is not within the definition of Christianity”; (2) allowed Mother to present testimony from a minister from her church claiming that Father’s Church was not part of the Christian faith; and (3) admitted into evidence a chart purporting to compare the tenets of Father’s Church with Christian beliefs. The court’s order specifically found “that Mormonism does not fall within the confines of [the] Christian faith.”

Courts are not the appropriate forum to assess whether someone who self-identifies as “Christian” qualifies to use that term. If the superior court’s order could stand, the “harm of such a governmental intrusion into religious affairs would be irreparable.” “Such a judgment could cause confusion, consternation, and dismay in religious circles.” Accordingly, the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine applies with full force in this case, and we vacate the superior court’s order on that basis.

In so holding, we observe that a parenting plan’s religious-education provision may be enforced without violating First Amendment principles if the dispute does not require a court to wade into matters of religious debate or dogma….. But parents who wish to address aspects of their children’s religious education in a parenting plan should take great care to ensure those provisions are as specific and detailed as possible. Failure to do so may impermissibly entangle the court in religious matters should a dispute ever arise.

This case provides a potent example of this possibility made real. The ambiguities surrounding the phrase “the Christian faith” thrust the court directly into a matter of theological controversy in which it could not take part. Accordingly, we vacate the court’s order regarding religious education also because the First Amendment precluded the court from addressing whether Father’s Church is part of “the Christian Faith.” …

Presiding Judge James B. Morse Jr. specially concurred, concluding that the court shouldn’t opine on the constitutional questions.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

12 thoughts on “Courts discuss whether LDS members are Christians

  1. I’m glad this case went that way, but it makes you wonder how willing and biased the first judge was to give such an unconstitutional judgment like that, to side with the mother, who sounds like she’s an evangelical by the fact that she brought a Pastor willing to classify us as non Christians according to his biased position as well. If the superior court would have held that judgment that would have been a tragedy. I guess they would have had to go the Supreme Court. But I wonder about the Supreme Court biases these days.

  2. Several years ago I was sitting in a courtroom in Houston, Texas in which the judge was deciding a case similar to this before calling up my case. He was facing a dispute in which several people were suing their church claiming they had been wrongly excommunicated. I had expected that the judge would listen to their arguments and tell them that the First Amendment tied his hands. I was horrified when he didn’t do that, and instead waded into the controversy of whether or not a religious group had the right to exclude people who were egregiously and admittedly violating core tenets of the faith. Nothing good comes from such things.

  3. The judge was Michael Mandell. He is no longer on the family court, having rotated to the criminal division I believe. It happened several months before this ruling came down, so it couldn’t have been related.

  4. Good decision. This is a no-brainer. I wonder if it happened like that at the Superior Court because the parties didn’t have attorneys.
    But the husband had a great lawyer on appeal. He’s very good, as a lawyer and a person.

  5. Just more proof of however Mormons try, whatever we do, however we act or reach out, we’ll not be considered Christian by others. This is in particular interesting because as a regular church member, this wasn’t an apologist, it wasn’t a pastor, it was a member of a church, this is what they are taught.

  6. I think cheering on this decision is a bit dangerous. I am a divorced father of 4. When I divorced all four of my children were minors and the impetus for the divorce was my (now former) spouse’s desire to live her life as a homosexual. Up to that point we had all been very active LDS and so I was able to successfully argue to the judge for the inclusion of a clause stating that the minor children would continue to be raised in and attend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My former spouse spent the immediately ensuing couple of years church shopping (though staying in the generic Christian tradition). On two occasions I had to file contempt motions with the court to enforce the religious observance clause and specifically had to argue that Mormons are not generic Christians. I had to distinguish for the court the distinct differences in the doctrinal nature of our beliefs as well as the practical differences and, fortunately, I was successful. Any erosion of that distinction could be damaging to my continued effort to raise my children within the Church.

    I live in the Midwest and in my particular locale generic Christians break down into the following groups (in order of significance): Catholics, Lutherans, All Others. The problem with including the term “Mormon” within “Christian” is that it subsequently renders the term “Christian” meaningless. My new wife, who happens not to be LDS, would never confuse a Christian denomination with an LDS one. Locally, the term “Christian” is a reference to the many non-denominational Christian communities in the area and clearly distinguishes them from the Catholics and the Lutherans– and the Mormons.

    Mormons are not Christians (or we are the only ones). Eroding that distinction is a mistake.

  7. Paul,

    I see it differently. Mormons are Christians, but not all Christians are Mormons. Mormon is a subset.

    Similarly, Ohioans are Americans, but not all Americans are Ohioans. Ohio is a subset.

    Your divorce decree specified the narrow — but the court decree in the original posting specified the broad. Using the states comparison, your decree said the children needed to be raised in Ohio while the OP decree said the children needed to be raised in the U.S. Your wife taking the kids to New York would violate your decree, but would not violate the OP decree.

  8. @Paul M,

    I would hope that family court judges are experienced and knowledgeable enough to understand that the CoJCoLDS are not the only Christian denomination to insist that outsiders recognize them as having a uniqueness that separates them from other denominations.

    Catholics themselves claim a unique authority as well. Seventh Day Adventists, The Episcopal Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses easily come to mind. I think Southern Baptists also claim a degrees of apartness.

    Evangelicals and Pentecostals also have traditionally touted the uniqueness of their “branches” within the overall Christian tree.

    I could see divorcing parents of all those groups insisting on the narrower definition of their denomination as opposed to generic “Christian”. Yet all the above would still appear to fall under the “Christian” heading.

    Bottom line: this trail has already been blazed. It is not new territory.

    Though, it now occurs to me your situation was opposite the OP. You had a particular denomination already specified in your decree, which narrowed things down. The OP is about a decree that was broad and generic (“Christian”), and the father’s choice was a move from generic to specific.

  9. Paul M:

    The court anticipates your argument in the last paragraph of their holding:

    “But parents who wish to address aspects of their children’s religious education in a parenting plan should take great care to ensure those provisions are as specific and detailed as possible.”

    Your order was specific. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. The parents in the case at point could has specified, “Corner Baptist Church”, and then needed a further court order to change the plan if that church were disbanded.

    The ruling is good and appropriate to protect against abusive judges who would look into tenets instead of specific terms.

  10. “Suffer the little children to come unto Me…”.Is anyone more interested in the effect upon the children than virtue signaling and old historical conflicts?

    From the point of view of the children, divorce is hard enough without having to negotiate difficult religious questions. It is relatively easy to move from the Baptist church across the street to the Lutheran church. About as easy as switching which station you buy your gas.

    Mormonism is a distinct religion. Commenting from the viewpoint of a husband of a woman who left the LDS church and converted to an evangelical faith when our children were young teenagers/old primary students, it is not easy at all. More like switching from a gas car to an electric car. I was about to say a horse- drawn-buggy but stopped because my daughter never did marry that Mennonite boy.

    The legal circus above began when the term Christian was not defined at the beginning. I think at that point either side could have made whatever definition they wanted and if not agreeable, they could have fought it out then- without tormenting their children. The fact this was settled by a court SHOUTS how stubborn and blatantly un-Christian both parents are acting. A Southern judge and Elder in a Baptist church might understand the basic tenants of Christianity better and declare that neither parent was practicing Christianity and throw the case out. Forbid the attorneys from collecting their fees too. Several quotable Bible scriptures come to mind.

    Our missionaries converted a retired Methodist pastor whose wife had recently passed away. He was invited to speak at a youth fireside at the bishop’s house and my wife was invited to be there in hopes that she would see the error of her ways, in front of her children. She said nothing during his talk out of respect. And in the discussion after, she said absolutely nothing an orthodox Mormon (our bishop standing right there listening) would disagree with.

    The ex-pastor thought we believed in the trinity, claimed the missionaries said so. The pre-existence was news to him. Creation from nothing was discussed. The apostasy and idea that no legitimate Christian church with authority to baptize existed for about 18 centuries. That was not all. In summary, they concluded we agreed upon many of the things that Jesus did, but we do not agree upon who Jesus is, His relationship with churches and therefore do not pray to the same Jesus. The Muslims pray to Allah who is similar to Eli or Elohim in the Jewish scriptures. It would be a similar stretch to see Allah as the same God as the Trinity or the LDS Godhead. Not to mention Buddha, etc. etc.

    We never saw the ex-pastor again. My wife was blamed for driving him away, while the bishop agreed fully with everything she said. I think it is a problem when we have to be deceitful by our silence and sugar-coating to be included as “Christians.” Especially after more than a century of characterizing traditional Christianity as rotten to the core and diabolical. We should boldly but respectfully stand for what we believe, correct our historical mistakes (not hide them) and let the consequences follow.

    My children are grown. One wants nothing to do with organized religion. Three are in other Christian faiths and one does what I describe in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. His faith is forged in the fiery furnace. All of them love their mother and are loved by her. Religion is fitted around family, not the other way around. I bet the children of the divorce above will not fair as well.

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