The revelation last week that two proposed alcohol-related initiatives were aborted after private conversations between lawmakers and the LDS Church once again raises a decades-old argument that remains a divisive spike in the heart of the community.
Church officials have weighed in numerous times in back-room conversations with policy-makers over issues with which they have concerns. Almost without exception, church opposition to a proposition will lead to its demise. And often, that opposition is never made public.
The latest examples:
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A state senator withdrew a proposed bill last week that would have allowed placement of a charter school in downtown Salt Lake City by creating exemptions from a law requiring that schools be at least 600 feet from alcohol-serving establish- ments.
A Salt Lake City Council member inquired what the LDS Church’s position would be on Mayor Rocky Anderson’s proposal to allow more than two taverns per block face in the city’s downtown area to foster a more hospitable entertainment district. The church would oppose it, he was told, and the mayor’s initiative is now being prepared for burial.
That the state capital’s population has more non-devotees than followers of LDS policies can be seen in the election of its most recent two mayors – Deedee Corradini and Rocky Anderson. Corradini is non-Mormon. Anderson is openly inactive.
Yet six of the seven Salt Lake City Council members are active LDS and, though they protest the label of puppets, their votes on policies and ordinances almost always fit nicely the objectives of the LDS Church.
The dichotomy is easy to explain. Because LDS populations are organized in neighborhood wards and often are tight-knit communities within their area, candidates in council districts are well-known in their neighborhoods if they hold positions in their local wards. So they run with the built-in advantage of familiarity. That advantage is muted in a city-wide election.
The mayor has expressed frustration that his initiatives to bring more night life and business downtown are thwarted by the council in consultation with church officials.
The percentage of active Mormons in the Legislature is far higher than that of the statewide population. So the perception of private agreements between the church and the so-called secular elective body has at times caused apoplexy among those who believe their voices are ignored because of the church-state relationship.
In the 1980s, a bill to exempt tour buses and chauffeured limousine services from Utah’s “no open container” law so their passengers could drink alcohol during an excursion had the support of law enforcement, the governor and business leaders – and no public opposition.
The bill sailed through the House and on the last night of the session it was scheduled for a vote in the Senate. Just before its turn, however, two officials in the LDS Church’s public relations department phoned two senators while they were on the floor and told them privately the church did not want the bill to pass. The session ended and the bill died without a vote.
In the 1980s, Sen. Warren Pugh, R-Holladay, one of the Utah Legislature’s most respected members, sponsored a major overhaul of the state’s liquor laws. He could not find a co-sponsor until Oscar McConkie, the LDS Church’s lobbyist, distributed a note in the Senate stating that the church had no opposition to the bill. Every senator then signed on as a co-sponsor.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Business Labor and Economic Development subcommittee one year had decided among themselves to dissolve the Citizens Council on Alcoholic Beverage Control because its strident, sometimes radical opposition to alcohol sales or consumption were seen as too extreme.
As the committee meeting convened, an official from the LDS Church walked in, sat at the front of the room, folded his arms and looked skyward, ostensibly toward heaven. He never spoke, but one senior member of the committee quickly changed his tune and made a motion to reauthorize the council. It passed.