On moral issues, LDS Church leaders routinely make their feelings known – in sometimes sweeping statements that often leave details open to interpretation.
And as expected, the church’s First Presidency two months ago issued a statement backing constitutional amendments blocking gay marriage. But they stopped short of mentioning Utah’s Amendment 3.
Mormon leaders’ relative silence since that short news release has led some to speculate that perhaps church officials are uncomfortable with Utah lawmakers’ attempts to define marriage. Others say church leaders – who have nearly monolithic religious and political power in a state where about two-thirds of residents are members – don’t have to do anything else.
And church officials, so far, refuse to say much more.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ previous political activism in support of marriage amendments is undisputed. In 1994, the church’s ruling First Presidency made its opposition to gay marriage a rallying point and urged members to appeal to lawmakers “to preserve the purposes and sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”
In Alaska and Hawaii, the church contributed more than $1 million to bolster campaigns for successful “protection of marriage” ballot initiatives. Four years ago, church leaders stepped into the fight over California’s Proposition 22, issuing a letter asking members to volunteer and spend their money in support of the so-called Knight Initiative. And in 2002, the church joined the coalition backing Nevada’s constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
But with a new round of amendments on the ballot in up to 10 states, the LDS Church is taking what seems to be a more passive approach.
On July 7, just before the U.S. Senate was scheduled to vote on a proposed federal amendment defining marriage as the legal union of a man and a woman, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor Thomas S. Monson and Second Counselor James E. Faust released this two-paragraph statement: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favors a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman.” They called it a “statement of principle” and cautioned that it should not be read as an “endorsement of any specific amendment.”
“We have not had a position on [Utah’s] amendment or any amendment,” said church spokeswoman Kim Farah. “We made a statement in principle only.”
Part 1 of Amendment 3 defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. Part 2 would block the state from granting any other relationship status or rights “the same or substantially equivalent” to marriage. Critics say the second clause would blockhospital visitation, joint bank accounts, protective orders and inheritance rights for already existing Utah families with unmarried heterosexual or gay parents.
Supporters of Amendment 3 have used the LDS Church leaders’ statement to their advantage, implying that they have the church’s backing on Web sites and in radio appearances.
Amendment sponsor Chris Buttars, of West Jordan, is careful to separate himself from the church. The Republican state senator says he did not ask LDS leaders for input when he and Draper GOP Rep. LaVar Christensen were preparing the amendment during the 2004 Legislature.
“I’m not going to claim I have a channel to the church,” Buttars said. “And I’m not going to put any pressure on the church. If they want to make further comment, they will.”
LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills backs up Buttars’ version of events. “The church was not involved in any way in the drafting or passage” of Amendment 3, he said.
Other Utah politicians have gotten heartburn trying to appear independent, but not at odds with, church leaders.
On Aug. 6, Republican Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff issued a joint statement with his challengers, Democrat Greg Skordas and Libertarian Andrew McCullough, opposing the amendment. When a Salt Lake Tribune article reported that the church had endorsed Utah’s amendment, Bills requested a correction. So did Shurtleff’s campaign manager, Ally Isom.
“I’m sure you can see why I don’t want my candidate appearing to be at odds with the LDS Church,” Isom said.
At the same time, Shurtleff revealed this week that he had given a “heads up” to a church official before he released the joint statement. Shurtleff refuses to say whom he talked to, insists he was not asking permission to issue the joint statement, and says he got no advice, no “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”
“It was all ready to go,” he said. The conversation with the church leader “is irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned.”
Skordas figures Shurtleff’s reluctant revelation that he ran the joint statement by an LDS leader is really a thinly-veiled strategy to play both sides.
“He works so hard to be everyman, with the church behind him, the gay community behind him, the legislature behind him,” Skordas said. “Take a stand, then stand behind it.”
While conservative politicians quietly tiptoe around or tout the LDS Church’s tacit support for Amendment 3, opponents of the amendment are encouraged by the church’s continued quiet.
Don’t Amend Alliance Director Scott McCoy chooses to take an optimistic interpretation of Bills’ request for a correction.
“The church is watching this very carefully. They don’t want the rank-and-file misinterpreting their statement. And they don’twant other people putting words into their mouths,” McCoy said. “I think that’s because they may be learning about exactly what Part 2 does and how far it goes. They are OK with amendments to define marriage, but this is much more than that.”
Gary Watts, an inactive Mormon and father of two gay children, also hopes church leaders will not tinker.
“The best I can hope for is that they decide to stay out of it,” Watts said.
But Jan Shipps, a scholar in Mormon history, said observers shouldn’t read too much into that correction or the church’s subsequent silence. Shipps says the gay marriage fights in Alaska, California and Hawaii were tossups because of the political makeup of those states. Staunchly conservative Utahns, on the other hand, need little prodding to vote for Amendment 3. And church leaders don’t want to appear too heavy-handed.
“It’s a practical approach,” said Shipps, emeritus professor of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. “An institution, even one as powerful as the LDS Church, has a limited amount of political capital. Their position is clear. It’s not as necessary for them to ask people to talk to their neighbors and spend their money.”
Beyond church officials saving their political capital for another fight, Rick Bickmore believes the apparent ambiguityin the First Presidency’s statement may be deliberate. Bickmore, director of the Wasatch chapter of Affirmation, a social and educational support group for gay Mormons, figures church leaders have done all they need to in order to rally conservative voters while appearing to be above politics.
“They’ve got plenty of people in Utah ready to listen,” he said. “Their original press release seems very clearly to support the Utah amendment. And the vast majority of Utahns took it that way. I don’t know how much [church leaders] really want to make it clear.”
Tribune reporter Kirsten Stewart contributed to this story.
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