Walsh: End LDS-legislator huddle

Published January 26, 2009 6:33 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mormon church elders met with state legislative leaders at 50 E. North Temple last week.

It happens every year -- like General Conference or political neutrality statements. Republican lawmakers hashed over their legislative agenda with a church apostle, the presiding bishop, a church lobbyist and PR staffers. Two weeks ago, it was Democrats' turn.

After consulting the oracles, the Senate president and House speaker reported back: LDS Church leaders might be willing to do away with private club memberships if lawmakers come up with a system for scanning driver licenses.

Utahns are so used to it, we don't even blink anymore. It was a routine news story, rather than an unconstitutional outrage.

"There's not much separation of church and state going on there," says Joe Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "It is a clear violation of American democratic principles. The implication is that one church will have more influence than any other group in the state."

More than an implication, it's reality. The ring kissing has settled into policy over generations -- from 1851, when Mormon prophet Brigham Young was inaugurated governor of the Utah Territory, to today, when more than 80 percent of lawmakers are faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Meetings at North Temple are a shortcut -- for governors hoping to end-run opposition to their plans to liberalize liquor laws, lawmakers trying to build public support for controversial legislation or gay-rights groups hoping to gather up crumbs in the wake of Prop 8. Any smart reporter first asks, "Have you checked with THE CHURCH?"

It's realpolitik.

"The overwhelming majority of legislators are LDS," says Will Carlson, public policy manager for Equality Utah. "If the LDS Church made a statement of opposition, the [Common Ground] bills would have no chance."

Church and legislative leaders try to shellack their closed-door meetings with a veneer of objectivity. LDS spokesmen say legislators request the meeting each year. The church hires a lobbyist like every other special interest. And, they note, the elders didn't take a stance on any particular pieces of legislation, including the Common Ground bills.

Church spokesman Scott Trotter says the annual luncheon allows LDS leaders to "remind" legislators of the church's political neutrality. The 15-year-old tradition was started to help lawmakers "gauge their constituents' opinions on important issues."

Lawmakers argue that they meet with all denominations -- Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran. Mormon elders are just a few among many. And church approval is no guarantee of legislative success; legislators still refused to approve a hate-crimes bill that listed sexual orientation. But church opposition leads directly to the round file.

Conn says the mountaintop meetings might be a pragmatic acknowledgement of Utah demographics. But that doesn't make it all right. Nowhere else in the country do lawmakers consult with one denomination in this way -- not Boston, not Birmingham. It's one thing for lawmakers to consult privately with individual Mormon bishops and stake presidents. It's another to make an annual political event out of it.

"It is a clear violation of American democratic principles," he says. "It not only looks like theocracy, it suggests there is a theocracy."

There's an easy way to fix this: End the annual meetings. Send church lobbyist Bill Evans to the hearings with everybody else.

Rebecca Walsh is a columnist. Reach her at walsh@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">walsh@sltrib.com

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