Mormon scholars critical of Trump immigration ban, compare it to 19th century treatment of Mormons

Mormon scholars have released a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit comparing the treatment of early Latter-Day Saints to President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigrants from six mostly-Muslim nations, according to the Washington Post. Critics of this executive order have called it a “Muslim ban.”

“Most relevant to this case, animus against the Mormons led federal officials and lawmakers to attack Mormon immigration,” the brief says. “In 1879, the Secretary of State sent a circular letter to all American diplomatic officers, calling on them to pressure European governments to prohibit Mormon emigration from their countries.” The scholars made parallels between the treatment Mormons received by the government in the 19th century and the treatment proposed by President Trump.

The Washington Post reported, “District court judges in Hawaii and the state of Washington have halted key portions of the ban on the grounds that it likely violates the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. The scholars don’t take a position on whether the executive order violates the clause or is ‘otherwise unlawful.’”

Names such as Harvard University’s Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, University of Virginia’s Kathleen Flake, and Patrick Mason from Claremont Graduate University, along with recent BYU-Hawaii visitors Terryl Givens and Richard Bushman are among the brief’s signers.

Scott Muhlestein, a junior majoring in English from Utah, said, “I think a big reason these scholars are speaking up is because they have a broad understanding of the religious persecution by the government in the history of Mormonism, which they wouldn’t want to see repeated.”

The 19 scholars wrote, "The Mormon experience illustrates the harms that result from the government targeting a particular religion. The federal government's actions against Mormons occurred at a time when first amendment jurisprudence was in its infancy and the law blessed government actions that today would be blatantly unconstitutional."

Bushman, author of “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” 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."

Jim Tueller, a BYUH professor of history, questioned the effectiveness of the scholars’ brief. “These are all historians of Mormonism, and of course the history of Mormons in the 19th century is a history of refugees. However, I’m not sure how effective filing a brief is these days.” He said with information so accessible on the internet, the role of “experts” has been minimalized.

Matthew Bowen, assistant professor of religion at BYUH, stated, “We are coming into an era where religious freedom isn’t viewed as favorably or with as much tolerance as it once was. Church leaders have been trying to wake up the members of the church to the urgency of the religious freedom issue; the question is, are we listening?”

On the issue of religious freedom and the emphasis on helping refugees, Bowen added, “These issues are more connected than we might think.”

In the April 2016 General Conference, months before President Trumps travel ban, Elder Patrick Kearon of the Quorum of the Seventy gave a talk titled “Refuge from the Storm.” He said, “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them.

“Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us,” Kearon continued.

Click here to read a PDF version of the brief posted by the Washington Post. Clicking on the link will take you away from BYU-Hawaii’s website.


Date Published: 
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Last Edited: 
Wednesday, May 17, 2017