(disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on the internet!)
When a secular law needs interpreting, a court will apply what is called “Statutory Construction”. By applying a set of rules, the court tries to determine what a statute really means. I thought it would be fun to apply these rules to the Word of Wisdom as dictated by the Lord to Joseph Smith in D&C 89
First lets look at the rules. There is not a exact set of rules, but some that are commonly accepted and could be applyed to the D&C are
Statutes should be internally consistent. A particular section of the rules should not be inconsistent with the rest of the statute.
When the legislature enumerates an exception to a rule, one can infer that there are no other exceptions.
The legislature is presumed to act intentionally and purposely when it includes language in one section but omits it in another.
The Rule of Lenity: in construing an ambiguous rule, a court should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.
A court may also look at: the common usage of a word, case law, dictionaries, parallel reasoning, punctuation.
For the above rules, replace legislator with Lord, because D&C 89 is given in the first person “verily, thus saith the Lord unto you” tense (see verse 4), and replace court with Church Leadership (FP down to bishop as the case may be).
The first rule is internal consistency. The one that jumps out at me are found in D&C 89
16 All grain is good for the food of man; as also the fruit of the vine; that which yieldeth fruit, whether in the ground or above the ground—
17 Nevertheless, wheat for man, and corn for the ox, and oats for the horse, and rye for the fowls and for swine, and for all beasts of the field, and barley for all useful animals, and for mild drinks, as also other grain.
Verse 16 says all grain is good for man, yet 17 says wheat for man, corn for the ox, etc. Which is it?
Next is the exceptions clause. For the meat section there is an exception. Meat is only to be used in time of cold, famine, winter. So there is only one exception, and no one should infer other exceptions. Well, seems like the LDS church has broken this rule of construction, and decided that there are other exceptions, like pretty much any time you want to eat meat is an exception!
The Rule of Lenity. If there is a question about guilt because of ambiguity, the court (bishops counsel) should rule for the defendant. Not sure how that would play out in a church setting, but when I was Bishop, my rule was to always error on the side of compassion. If I was anything, I was too lenient, not too hard. Leaders would try to scare us that if we didn’t punish members, their sins would fall to us. So be it, I have a lot of my ward’s sins on my back.
Here are some of the ambiguous words and phrases in the section that could cause confusion to members
pure wine of the grape
The last rule says we should look at the language in the law, common word usage common at the time, the intent of the writer (Lord).
What is a hot drink? Is it the temperature? Is it the actual drink? The court will then look into the history of the words used to see if they can tease out the intent of the law. In this case, the court (Leadership of the current church) have defined the intent of hot drinks as coffee and tea, regardless of the temperature.
Mild and strong drinks. The language is ambiguous, as what might be strong to one person might not be strong to another. So then a court would look at the history of the phrase strong drink. They would decide that it meant alcoholic drinks, except for beer which at the time was a mild barley drink. But the court (First Pres) has ruled that mild drinks from barley are no longer allowed. If we follow the rules, a new canonized revelation would be needed to enforce this, but the church instead has chosen to add beer to the prohibited list via policy from the handbook.
Wine is not to be used per verse 5, with an exception that if it is “pure wine of the grape” then it is OK to use for sacrament. Some courts (apologists) have interpreted “pure wine” as grape juice, but most acknowledge that wine means fermented grapes with alcohol. But like the beer above, the church has created a policy to block the exception for sacrament, without any canonized revelation to remove it.
Lastly we have herbs. The current definition which I believe would have applied in Joseph Smith’s time is “any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume”. There are no exceptions to this verse, “every herb” is good, yet in the church today makes an exception for cannabis. Now the court could argue that cannabis was not know in the 1800’s, but it was know at that time, and if we believe that the Lord actually dictated this to Joseph, then maybe He just forgot to make an exception?
Now obviously we can’t apply secular law to religious law, especially one give directly from the mouth of the Lord. But it does make one wonder how the Lord would do in in a court of law trying to defend his words.
And again, apologies to the real lawyers that are reading this, and jump in please to correct me where I have fallen short in the interpretation of these rules of construction.