Dear Abby and missionary service

I usually try to keep posts here strictly legal, but this topic was too interesting to pass up. A family member mentioned this Dear Abby column that ran in a newspaper about a week ago, and it raised a lot of red flags. The question and answer are brief so I will reproduce them in their entirety:

DEAR ABBY: Our nephew recently asked family members for money to help him go on a mission for his church. Apparently he is supposed to gather 50 sponsors to pay a “tax deductible” $50 to $100 per month for two years (via direct bill or credit card), according to the forms from his church.
We love our nephew and his parents, but we do not share their religious beliefs. And quite frankly, the request has upset more than a few members of the family because the amount requested is obviously not just to support the young man, but a way to support his church.

I generally think the new Dear Abby distributes poor advice, but she’s right-on this time. I wanted to know more about the situation. First and foremost, is this a Mormon mission? The two-year time period and Arizona location would seem to support this possibility, as would the family members’ disapproval of the church in question. But if that is the case, I’m just as embarrassed as the writer in Arizona.

I’m sure the Mormon Church has methods or forms to enable interested family members or friends. However, I’m reasonably certain that mass-mailings are discouraged, if not prohibited. I find it particularly troubling that the young missionary-to-be was seeking a fixed number of sponsors (50) that were supposed to donate a certain amount per month ($50-100). While that may be a legitimate fund-raising tactic in other areas, it seems to run against the personal sacrifice aspects of Mormon missionary services. I find it extremely hard to believe that the Mormon Church would instruct its missionaries to gather sponsors in such a way. In fact, the general guidance is for young men and women to save money in their teenage years to pay for the cost of serving a mission.

I see two possibilities behind the Dear Abby question. The first is that this aspiring missionary is actually a member of another denomination that performs missionary service. If that is the case I have no problem with it. It seems somewhat in poor taste, but they can set their own rules. The second possibility is that this is indeed a young man going on a Mormon mission who is misrepresenting the LDS Church’s missionary system in order to defray the cost of service. I wish I could say that it was impossible that a young man or family would try to pass on the cost of a mission, but I can’t. I hope that it is not the case.

Is anyone aware of specific LDS Church policy prohibiting missionary funding schemes like this? I don’t have immediate access to a Handbook of Instructions, but I can check. I can’t find any specific policies on mission funding on the LDS.org missions page. The most guidance I can find is the following passage from the LDS Newsroom page on the Missionary Program. It states: “Missionaries fund their own missions — except for their transportation to and from their field of labor — and are not paid for their services.”

From the Blawgernacle – August 1, 2009

If you read legal blogs you know that they are often called “blawgs,” an extremely unimaginative combination of the words “law” and “blog.” Similarly, the Mormon portion of the Bloggosphere is often given the horrendous name “Bloggernacle.” I don’t know if there is a name for the legal corner of the Bloggernacle, but I’m calling it the  Blawgernacle until I can think of a better name.

I wanted to highlight a few good posts from the newly-christened Blawgernacle that have been posted in the last week. The first is by Geoff B. of Millennial Star about the Mormon angles of the Robert Bork Supreme Court nomination hearings. He mentioned a few interesting tidbits, including the fact that Bork and a young associate named Dallin Oaks helped end a “Jewish quota” at Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. Geoff’s article is here.

The second post of note is by Blawgernacle notable Nate Oman of Times & Seasons on “The Evolution of Excommunication.” The development and interaction of LDS Church courts with the American legal system is on of Oman’s areas of interest, but I thought this post was especially interesting. Oman looked at old Church Handbooks published in 1890, 1920, and 1940, and he identifies a shift in focus from remedying past wrongs to seeking the spiritual welfare of the individual. Anyone familiar with criminal legal theory will recognize that this shift is similar to the shift in criminal law from retribution or isolation to rehabilitation.  Oman’s article is here.

Charges Dropped Against Mormon Plaza Gay Kissers

The Salt Lake City prosecutor’s office says it will not pursue charges against two men who were cited for trespassing on a Mormon church-owned downtown plaza earlier this month.

Prosecutor Sim Gill said in a statement that “when you have private property that is open to the public…there is some responsibilities of the property owner”. Gill also said that Utah state law requires the property owner to let the public know what rules to follow. It will be interesting to see if the LDS Church puts signs up on the Plaza explaining exactly what type of affection can be displayed and by what sexes.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has disputed Aune’s and Jones’ version of the events, saying their behavior was lewd and more was involved than a “simple kiss of the cheek.”

What is the Mormon view of capital punishment?

Twice in the last week the death penalty has come up in conversation, and it got me thinking about it. The first was actually in a job interview: I recently applied to a government position that required occasional work on habeus actions, including some capital cases. The interviewer said the office had used conscience waivers in the past, but they were difficult to coordinate. I honestly hadn’t given the death penalty much thought prior to that moment. In fact, I have been pretty agnostic on the subject. I don’t really oppose it, but the death penalty isn’t something I cheer about.

The topic came up again over the weekend as various news media outlets around the Southeast began to report on the jury selection process in a high-profile kidnapping-rape-murder trial of a Knoxville couple. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants, and the cases are generating a enough controversy in Knoxville that the jury had to be picked from another city

My own ambivalence as to the death penalty doesn’t mean other Mormons don’t have strong feelings on the matter. Many Mormons feel that that capital punishment is inconsistent with Christian doctrines of forgiveness and mercy. Others oppose it because they feel that we should not judge in matters of life and death.

On the other hand, there are apparently some Mormons who believe in a theory of “blood atonement,” where forgiveness of some sins can only be obtained by execution. There is some disagreement about what “blood atonement” means, but that’s the gist of it. Clint wrote a post last February about a murder trial in Ogden, Utah, in which the defense attorney sought to exclude all Mormons from the jury who might believe in a “blood atonement.” I’ve never known anyone who espoused this theory, but it apparently comes from a few statements made by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders in the 19th Century. The theory definitely hasn’t been taught in Mormon congregations in my lifetime, but it may have had some support as recently as fifty years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt from Joseph Fielding Smith’s Doctrines of Salvation:

“Man may commit certain grievous sins… that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ…. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their own blood shed to atone…” (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, pp. 133-138)

I should note that this statement doesn’t necessarily advocate capital punishment. It could just as well be interpreted as saying that forgiveness will have to wait until after an individual’s death. Such an interpretation might not even be contrary to current Mormon teachings. But at least some people take it to mean that the death penalty should be administered in certain cases. Bruce R. McConkie also references the “blood atonement” theory by name in his oft-quoted Mormon Doctrine.

I notice that both Doctrines of Salvation and Mormon Doctrine aren’t official publications of the Mormon Church, and both are known to include teachings that are disavowed by Mormon leaders. But both works are still used with some regularity by some Mormons, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that some people would still believe in the blood atonement theory.

After my interview I thought about my opinion on capital punishment, and out of curiosity, I looked up the LDS Church’s official statement on the subject. The official position is almost as ambivalent as my own:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.

That official statement seems to expressly disavow any dogma that advocates the death penalty for certain offenders. I can’t find any good information as to whether the “blood atonement” theory was ever an official doctrine of the LDS Church, but it seems safe to say that it isn’t now. I also think it’s safe to say that this belief is a rarity within Mormonism. If it was ever more prevalent among American Mormons, that has changed as Mormonism has evolved into a world religion. The majority of the membership of the Mormon Church lives outside the United States, and most countries do not even allow capital punishment.

Mormon leaders meet with President Obama

Yesterday President Barack Obama had a meeting with President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two well-known Mormon lawyers also attended the meeting — Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. Along with President Obama, the majority of the attendees of the meeting were J.D.’s, although all three men are better known for their roles outside the traditional legal profession. With so many lawyers in the room, perhaps it was inevitable that legal issues came up in conversation. Senator Reid later indicated that he was “glad that President Obama and Elder Oaks had an opportunity to discuss their shared passion of the law.” I admit I would have liked to have listened in on the conversation between the state-supreme-court-justice-turned-Mormon-apostle and the law-professor-turned-leader-of-the-free-world.

As they have done with the past two American presidents, the Mormon Church leaders presented President Obama with his family history, including a large-scale family tree (pictured above).

Illegal Aliens as Mormon Missionaries

The Salt Lake Tribune recently wrote an article highlighting the problem the LDS Church is facing with it’s missionaries who are illegally living in the United States, yet serving full-time missions. According to the Tribune, would-be missionaries who are “undocumented” are now being assigned only to “state side” missions where they will have a decreased chance of having problems with immigration issues.

We have also discussed this issue in the past, after Jose Calzadillas was detained by Customs and Border patrol agents in the Cincinnati International Airport for not having proper identification after attempting to fly home after successfully completing his mission in Ohio.

We have also discussed a separate yet similar topic of LDS missionaries knowingly baptizing illegal aliens into the Church and the moral issues that raises.
I feel that if the Church continues to knowingly baptize illegal aliens and allows them to serve full-time missions it will put them in the ackward position of having to publicly defend their support of people who are not obeying the law.

Secular laws vs. God’s laws

I was on the road last weekend and attended church at a Mormon ward in another city. Their Sunday School schedule was a week behind my home ward, so I got to hear the Word of Wisdom lesson twice. After hearing members of the class quibble over what constitutes “hot drinks” and the purpose behind the various prohibitions and admonitions, I started thinking about how the Word of Wisdom compares to secular laws.

I’ve often said before that the Word of Wisdom would be a lot clearer if it came with a definition section, but that approach probably wouldn’t work well for a religious law. A Word of Wisdom written like modern statutes would probably be less ambiguous, but it would also be limited by the text of the document. For example, illegal drugs are commonly included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, but there isn’t any particular text in Doctrine & Covenants 89 that supports this interpretation. Instead, that prohibition is based on the spirit of the law and (more importantly) revelation and clarification by modern prophets having the authority of God.

We have secular laws for many of the same reasons that we have laws from God. Those laws are intended at least in part to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others, so as to create a better-functioning society. Secular laws tend to be lengthy and difficult to understand, with rigid structures and terms of art that make them inaccessible to the layman. Secular laws, even constitutions, can usually be updated or amended by their enacting bodies to deal with changed circumstances. Sometimes secular laws can be interpreted by judicial bodies to clarify or extend the application thereof.

God’s laws tend to be relatively simple, even if they aren’t exhaustively thorough. They are designed so that even a child can understand the basic principles. They aren’t always crystal clear in structure or purpose, but like secular laws, religious laws can be clarified and expanded — not by legislatures or judges, but by God’s servants and messengers. And unlike secular laws, God’s laws always have an element of subjective application. Thus, there is considerable variation within the Mormon Church with respect to certain practices, such as paying tithing on gross or net income, drinking or avoiding Coke, etc.

Even though a Word of Wisdom with a definition section would be easier to follow, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. God’s laws weren’t meant to be subjected to textual analysis, but rather, inspired guidance and illustration by His servants. Attempting to quantify and dictate every aspect of worship was precisely what the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were trying to do, and that didn’t work out too well for them. Worship was never intended to require legal counsel — it is a personal relationship with Deity. So now when the members of my Sunday School class question how much meat consumption qualifies as “sparingly,” I sit back and smile. If that’s what it takes in order to keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ from devolving into arcane legal discussions, then it’s a small price to pay.

TIME Magazine on the Mormon Church

Next week’s issue of TIME Magazine has a pretty lengthy piece on the LDS Church.  Entitled “The Storm Over the Mormons,” the article discusses some of the fallout and criticism surrounding the California Proposition 8 campaign, as well as the mission and structure of the Mormon Church.  The main focus of the article isn’t legal, but it does touch on some topics such as religious political activism and the Mormon Church’s tax-exempt status.  The article cites at length the experience of Jay Pimentel, a lawyer and bishop in Almeda, California.  Nothing in the article is particularly earth-shaking, but it’s a fairly well-written and interesting piece with no major factual innaccuracies, which I can appreciate. The article is available here.

Hackers hijack the LDS Church News Twitter Account

LDS Church News revealed that hackers hijacked the Church News Twitter account last weekend. Twitter staffers took down the site because the infiltrators had gained total control over the feed.

Charlie Crane, director of interactive media for the Deseret News, said he realized Sunday night that the Church News account had been compromised. “We tried to get it back,” he said, but he soon realized that the hacker had even been able to change the password and lock him out. “I don’t know how they got the password,” Crane said. “I’m very skeptical (of Twitter) now.” He expressed concern for other Twitter accounts the Deseret News operates.

Crane said the hacker posted some anti-Mormon material on the site earlier this week. The Church News and Deseret News are owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through Deseret Management Corp. There’s no indication yet when the feed will be up again, but Twitter administrators said they would be contacting the Deseret News later today about restoring the Church News account.

Other Twitter accounts have been hacked into recently, including that of the New York Times and baseball coach Tony LaRussa. Unlike many online accounts, like those for Facebook, Twitter does not send a confirmation e-mail when a user changes a password, Crane said. We commented on this problem several months ago after someone had set up a Twitter account to impersonate President Thomas S. Monson. Twitter needs to come up with some solution to this problem or they may find themselves in a lawsuit or alienating their users.

I want everyone to sleep well tonight, the Mormon Lawyers Twitter account has not been hijacked.