Monday, February 20, 2012

Mormon Church in Hot Water over Proxy Baptisms

The Mormon Church has recently come under fire by Jewish activists and Holocaust Survivor advocacy groups for violating the 1995 agreement promising to halt the proxy baptisms of deceased Jewish Holocaust victims and remove their names from the Church’s genealogical records. Despite the enormous public relations effort of the recent I’m a Mormon campaign aimed at presenting a more diverse and more mainstream image, the Mormon Church suffered a setback last week as reports surfaced that the Church had performed proxy baptisms for the deceased parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Jewish leaders and activists, including Elie Wiesel, have called upon the Mormon leadership to condemn the baptisms and publically recommit to honoring the 1995 agreement.

Proxy baptism, also known as baptism for the dead, is a religious ritual of the Mormon Church that has been a tenet of the faith since its earliest days, when it was introduced by Joseph Smith. While considered a mysterious and peculiar concept by many non-Mormons, proxy baptism serves an important theological function in a Church that sees itself as the instrument of a universal message of salvation. According to Dan Gilgoff,’s Religion Editor, proxy baptisms are carried out in the Mormon Church as a way to ensure that those who do not get a chance to hear the message of Jesus Christ in this life can choose salvation in the next life. Church members are encouraged to participate in proxy baptisms and contribute names of deceased relatives to the Church’s genealogical registry. As Gilgoff notes, while it is difficult to precisely calculate the number of proxy baptisms that have been performed in the Church’s history, experts estimate that millions of deceased persons have been baptized posthumously.

Critics of the practice argue that proxy baptisms are disrespectful to the deceased person and his or her family, especially when the baptism takes place without the permission of the family, as was the case for the Wiesenthal family. Mormon leadership encourages members to offer only names of deceased relatives in order to curb the frequency of proxy baptisms performed without familial consent. For Jewish families, the concern goes much deeper, as many worry that proxy baptism threatens the historical recognition of the Jewish identity of the deceased by future generations.

Some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that the 1995 agreement holds no promise that the Mormon Church will actually desist in performing proxy baptisms on Jewish Holocaust victims. If the 1995 pact is deemed insufficient, it is possible that Jewish advocacy groups may turn to the law, specifically First Amendment protections, as a way to prevent the continued proxy baptism of deceased Jews. I believe that the Jewish community can make a case for a legally-binding injunction prohibiting the proxy baptism of deceased Jewish persons on the grounds that the proxy baptisms represent an infringement on the Jewish communities free exercise of religion in maintaining their particular religious beliefs on burial and proper treatment of the deceased. As Wiesel states in an interview with CNN, Jewish religious custom demands that the deceased person is not to be disturbed, a prohibition with could conceivably be extended to the memory of the deceased and not just the physical body. If the Jewish community could successfully argue this point, there might be legal standing to argue that the Mormon religious ritual of proxy baptism is directly infringing on Jewish burial customs.

A legal battle could be an interesting test case for seeing how the courts would rule when there are two competing and legitimate arguments for free exercise of religion. If, as the courts did in Reynolds v. United States (1878), the free exercise of religion is deemed to extend only to belief and not to actions, the courts could rule that, while the Mormon Church has the right to believe in the necessity of performing proxy baptisms for all persons regardless of religious affiliation, the Church might find itself being legally prohibited from actually performing proxy baptisms on deceased Jewish persons.

This issue raises serious questions about the viability of ensuring the free exercise of religion in a radically pluralistic society such as the United States. In my opinion, allowing for the prohibition of the practice of a deeply held religious belief constitutes a serious legal redefinition of what it means to be religious and severely restricts religious expression to the private and internal. As we have seen in the aftermath of the Reynolds case, prohibiting the practice often results in a change or loss of the associated belief. Yet, I think that religious communities that want to be full participants in American society should take a proactive stance in at least attempting to ensure that their religious practices are not insensitive or coercive towards others, rather than waiting for a legal ruling to force their acquiescence and compliance. It is unfortunate and disappointing that a religious tradition can feel justified in willfully engaging in a practice that is disrespectful to another group, as is the case in Synder v. Phelps (2011), when the Supreme Court ruled that the religiously-motivated picketing of funerals by Westboro Baptist Church is a constitutionally protected form of free speech even thought it caused significant emotional trauma for the families of the deceased. It is my opinion that, while there might be a guarantee to freedom of speech or exercise of religion, this does not mean the religious community in question should feel morally justified in engaging in that constitutionally protected behavior. I believe it imperative that the Mormon Church take significant steps to ensure that the event in question never again occurs and work to strengthen its relationship with Jewish communities forged in mutual respect and understanding.


kathryn y. said...

This is wildly fascinating to me. I too agree with your statement that certain religious traditions should not feel morally justified in performing such acts that are offensive to other traditions just because the Constitution protects such acts. If brought forth to the judicial system, I fear that some sort of radical change will have to arise in order to soothe this particular issue. I question though, what does this mean for missionaries in the Mormon and Christian traditions? This is another excellent example of how the religious freedom is entangled in a messy historical past and has never been neatly cleaned up.

Blake_S said...

I believe that you raise some great points in regard to the concept of proxy Baptism. I think that if there is a legally binding decision I honestly don't know which way the court would go. As stated the Reynolds case was a test case where Mormons thought their practices would be considered morally okay in the society but they were wrong in that instance. I truly believe that this practice is a threat to Jewish Identity and may even go to threaten it further with the name being recorded in a genealogy for the Church. I honestly do not know what to think of this practice and where the law would fall if it came to a legal battle between the two traditions.

Alexis A said...

I fully agree with Kathryn in that this is an exceptionally interesting and thought-provoking issue. While I do not think it was the Mormon's intent to infringe on the rights of the Jewish community, I think it is reasonable to question why they would perform these proxy baptisms without the consent of the family. It seems as though any member of the congregation could simply write someone's name on the list without considering the wishes of the deceased. The Mormon Church should implement a more restrictive policy regarding who is permitted to request the baptisms. Not only would it help prevent these kinds of events in the future, but it could also help keep them out of court.

Rebekah said...

Whether someone is alive or dead, you can not go around baptizing them without their consent. I see this as infringing on the deceased's religious freedom since they did not consent to participate in this religious activity. However, is there really a way to protect a deceased person's rights? Do the living Mormons trump the murdered Jews?

The fact that these churches are skewing history by adding the names of Jews to the church genealogy honestly infuriates me. First, it is inflammatory because it implies that these Jews would have converted if they had known this ultimate Mormon truth. Secondly, it is especially rude and idiotic as it can skew the history of the Holocaust, a very sensitive issue which some people contest ever occurred.

Olivea M said...

In my opinion, I think the proxy baptisms completely violate the deceased person and their family. I think that the Mormon Church is overstepping their Constitutional right to free exercise of religion, as well as violating the deceased's right to privacy. We have seen in class that not all actions preformed by religious institutions are Constitutional. In this example, I think the Mormon church is taking it too far. I find it interesting that the Mormon Church would think that it would be okay to preform these baptisms without any sort of notification to the families of the deceased. Especially if they had already reached an agreement 17 years ago to stop these practices. Also, how did all of these names of Jewish Holocaust survivors get put in the Mormon records?

Aldi said...

This practice to me is fascinating in that it seems to violate the religious rights of the deceased and their family. What captures me on this issue is that the Mormon Church is not receiving permission from the families to perform these baptisms, which clearly in of itself is a violation. The Mormons would definitely have a hard battle in court over this issue. One cannot assume that it will be seen as a religion case, but could be seen as that of a privacy violation. If it were to be tried as a religion cases, the Reynolds case would be a precedent that would be looked at and it would not favor the Mormons at all.