The following article is used by permission from:
The Daily Utah Chronicle, October 21, 1999

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LDS Church Should Set Members Free

by William Tibbits
Chronicle Opinion Columnist


    The International Reserve Inc., the corporation that owns copyrights used by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has recently commenced a lawsuit against two individuals.

    The goal of the lawsuit is to prevent these individuals from distributing excerpts from an unpublished church book dealing with the procedures for members removing their names from the LDS Church's membership rolls.

    The individuals involved, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, claim that they printed the pages on their website (they obtained this book from an anonymous source) in response to a request for such information from persons who were having difficulty getting the LDS Church to remove their names from its membership rolls.

    This issue of removing one's name from the membership rolls of the LDS Church has become visible in Utah recently due to a letter-writing campaign to get people to resign from the church in response to its decision to spend resources promoting ballot initiatives outlawing gay and lesbian marriages.

    This letter-writing campaign included several University of Utah students and led to a demonstration trying to highlight these issues at the LDS Church's general conference this month, which was partially organized by U students.

    People who have participated in this letter-writing campaign claim that their letters have resulted in harassing telephone calls from clergy and letters inviting them to participate in a church court concerning their membership status in the LDS Church.

    This type of response to a letter from a member of a church asking to be removed from a church's membership rolls is clearly an unconstitutional attack on the freedom of religion rights of those who wrote the letters.

    Freedom of religion, like all rights protected in the Bill of Rights, is a right for individuals, not organizations. This means that freedom of religion exists not for churches but for the members of those churches.

    This may seem like an unimportant distinction because most of the time the interests of the members of a church are directly aligned with the needs of the church as an organization. The proof of this is the number of First Amendment cases which involve the rights of members to practice their religion in the way that they wish too, free from intervention from the government.

    However, there are specific situations where the needs of the members will conflict with [t]he needs of their church. The most obvious example of such conflict is when the members of a church wish to leave that church.

    When a member wishes to leave a church, her or his interest is to leave on her or his own terms. The interest of the church is to force the member either to stay or to force the member to leave on the church's terms.

    If the freedom of religion rights in the Constitution were to benefit churches only, instead of the members, then people would not be able to leave religions, and churches would be able to take people to court to force them to pay tithing contractually implied by their membership.

    Fortunately, the people who wrote the Bill of Rights recognized that rights of this type are meaningless unless they inhere in individuals. This means that members of churches should have the right to leave a church on their own terms.

    In the context of the LDS Church, this means that people who wish to leave the LDS Church should be able to write a letter stating that wish and be left alone.

    So why is the LDS Church, through its subsidiary corporation IRI, attempting to prevent the publication of information on how to leave the LDS Church?

    IRI's official reason is that the publication of a few pages of one of their books on the World Wide Web is a violation of its copyright. This is a curious argument since the book in question is only available to LDS Church leaders and is not for sale on the market.

    Most copyright infringement cases involve things like selling or otherwise distributing unauthorized copies of computer software. In cases such as those, the copyright infringement reduces the copyright holder's capacity to make a profit on the copyrighted material.

    If the LDS Church and IRI have no plans to make a profit off of this publication, how does the free distribution of a small part of it hurt them?

    A cynical answer would be that the LDS Church is attempting to hold on to all its members so that it can maintain the potential of collect[ing] tithing from them. Considering the number of lawyers hired by the LDS Church, it is doubtful that it actually believes that the Constitution will allow it to keep unwilling members.

    A better explanation for this lawsuit is that the LDS Church feels that the information in the book is secret information which can be used against them by outsiders.

    The LDS Church uses this type of argument to explain its unwillingness to allow non-members to access its historical archives. Since these archives contain old letters and other writings from church leaders dealing with various aspects of LDS Church religious practices and beliefs, this concern is real.

    However, arguments against letting an outsider publish a letter from Joseph Smith about polygamy or Brigham Young about African Americans do not apply as well to letting an outsider publish a small excerpt from a policy manual. Boring procedural passages on how to leave the LDS Church will only interest those who wish to leave it.

    Given the lack of good justification, this case filed by IRI looks like the multi-year libel lawsuit McDonald's brought against a group of vegans in Britain who distributed a booklet which said that McDonald's food was not healthy.

    In both cases, you have a multi-billion dollar organization harassing a small group of people simply because those people were publicizing the truth about that organization.

    The LDS Church should recognize that using the courts in this way will only make it look bad, and drop the case.


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