The Mormon Church has rejected assertions made by the leader of an armed militia that he could use Mormon scripture to justify storming and occupying a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon this week.
"Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles," the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement Monday. "This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis."
The church added that Americans "are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land."
Ammon Bundy, one of the leaders of the armed occupation — now in its fourth day — posted a YouTube video Friday claiming that after prayer, he "began to understand how the Lord felt about Harney County" and "the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds," referring to a land dispute between the government and Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond.
According to the Department of Justice, the 2001 incident started with Dwight Hammond and his son Steven hunting on federal land adjacent to their property near the city of Burns in a remote stretch of eastern Oregon. The feds allege that the Hammonds "led an unauthorized hunting expedition" and "illegally shot several deer."
After the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) confronted the Hammonds about the poaching, the hunters set a fire that eventually scorched 139 acres of land. "We are going to light up the whole country on fire," Steven Hammond, now 46, reportedly said.
In 2012, the Hammonds were found guilty of starting the 2001 fire and another one in 2006 on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, also in Oregon. The judge in the case decided that the mandatory minimum sentence of five years was too harsh, so Steven was sentenced to a year in prison, while his 73-year-old father Dwight was ordered to serve three months. After they had completed their sentences and were released, an appeals court ordered the Hammonds back to prison to serve the full five-year terms required by the law.
The Hammonds' supporters — led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a separate 20-year legal dispute with the BLM that culminated with armed militiamen confronting federal agents last year — have portrayed the Hammonds as being victims of government overreach.
Ammon, whose name is the same as that of a figure in the Book of Mormon, also characterized the wildlife refuge a "tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds." The men have called on "all patriots" to join the occupation, urging them to "come prepared." Supporters toting assault rifles and decked out in camouflage have been spotted near the occupied building.
Mormonism has had a long and complicated history with the federal government, on numerous occasions resulting in standoffs over land use. Adherents believe the US Constitution is a divinely-inspired document, blurring the lines between state and church, and the Bundys have seized on this viewpoint to justify their own actions.
"Sometimes [Latter-day Saints] take positions in opposition to a federal proposal, and, in other cases, in support, but the central message is honoring and sustaining the law of the land," historian W. Paul Reeve told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Yet a Mormon in the 21st century "would be hard-pressed to justify an armed opposition to the federal government through their religion," he added. The Mormon Church seemingly agrees.