A group of 19 scholars of Mormon history have filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit attacking President Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from six Muslim countries. The brief tells the story of government attacks on Mormon immigration in the 19th century. This history, urges the brief, shows the need for the court to carefully examine President Trump’s executive order.
During the 19th century both state and federal officials repeatedly attacked the Mormons because of their religion. During the 1880s, federal officials explicitly targeted Mormon immigrants. In some cases, Latter-day Saints were refused entry to the country, in others they were jailed by government officials at the border, and at times federal officials pressured Mormon immigrants to abandon their religion and convert to Protestantism.
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that government targeting on the basis of religion sends the pernicious message that some religious believers are “outsiders, not full members of the political community.” The brief cautions against allowing the government to repeat past errors against today’s Muslims.
The 19 scholars, many of whom are Latter-day Saints, include some of the nation’s foremost experts on Mormon history. Asked about signing the brief, Richard Bushman, an emeritus professor at Columbia University and author of Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, the definitive biography of Mormonism’s founder, said, “Most Americans have a story about ancestors who came as immigrants to the United States, many under pressure. Mormons were among the most reviled when they came. We have to take a stand with those who flee to America as a refuge.”
Kathleen Flake, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, stated, “Even as a first instance, a Muslim ban under whatever name should alarm those who value freedom of conscience, America’s ‘first freedom.’ But certainly, we should learn from earlier Mormon bans that such discrimination has a long, unhappy cultural life.”
Pulitzer prize-winning Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s reasons are more personal. She said, “Whenever I hear people stereotyped for their religion, I think of my Grandfather Thatcher, who was denied the right to vote when in Idaho in the 1880s, not because he had violated any law, but simply because he was a Mormon. People should be judged on their behavior, not on their identity.”
The brief was originally drafted by Nathan B. Oman, a law professor at William & Mary who studies Mormon legal history. The scholars are represented before the Ninth Circuit by Anna-Rose Mathieson and Ben Feuer of the California Appellate Law Group LLP.