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Mormon apostle Oaks: Kentucky clerk wrong not to issue same-sex marriage licenses

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 01:22 pm

Conference speech » High Mormon official argues for balance between religious freedoms and civil liberties.

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, cannot use her Christian faith as a justification for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gays, a high-ranking Mormon authority said Tuesday.

Public officials "are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices," LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks said in a speech in Sacramento, Calif. "A county clerk's recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle."

After a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, Davis declined to sign marriage licenses for gay couples — and went to jail at one point — even when a federal judge ordered her to do so.

Advocates on both sides of the gay-rights divide have weighed in on Davis' actions, including many Mormons and other Christians defending the clerk, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been silent — until now.

In a carefully worded address at the Second Annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference titled "The Boundary Between Church and State," Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, argued for balance and good sense between religious freedoms and civil liberties.

"Believers should ... acknowledge the validity of constitutional laws. Even where they have challenged laws or practices on constitutional grounds, once those laws or practices have been sustained by the highest available authority believers should acknowledge their validity and submit to them."

The LDS Church eventually heeded that principle when it abandoned plural marriage more than a century ago after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in against the practice.

Davis' attorney, Mat Staver, fired back at Oaks. He said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that "any attempt to punish a person for the exercise of conscience is sinful."

"Kim Davis has a right to represent her county as an elected official without violating her deeply held religious convictions," Staver said. "Of all religious denominations the Mormon church should understand the importance of protecting religious freedom. How sad the church officials have forgotten their history and the importance of protecting conscientious objectors."

The Rev. Gregory Johnson, chairman of Standing Together, a consortium of Utah's evangelical Christian churches, also disagreed with the Mormon apostle — especially his opposition to Davis' stance.

"Conscientious objection and religious exemptions are part of our country's heritage," Johnson said. "When fighting in wars or endorsing or participating in a marriage you think does not honor God's design for marriage, such people have to be accommodated."

Davis was being forced to affix her name to a document that legalized same-sex marriage, which she opposes, Johnson said. "Since there are plenty of other county clerks who were willing to do it, her personal conviction on this matter should be recognized."

Johnson, who is on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, worried about moving "so quickly in the area of limiting religious freedom, or not standing up for the First Amendment rights of a clerk in Kentucky."

Christians need to be more patient, he said, lest they surrender too many religious rights.

For his part, Oaks called for a balancing of rights. Instead of a so-called "wall of separation between church and state," for instance, he proposed "a curtain that defines boundaries but is not a barrier to the passage of light and love and mutual support from one side to another."

Believers and nonbelievers should not be adversaries, nor should there "belligerence between religion and government," Oaks said in a release of his prepared speech. "These two realms should have a mutually supportive relationship."

The senior apostle, second in line for the LDS Church's presidency, suggested some general principles for all sides to follow along a "center path" that balances the rights and interests of church and state.

"First, parties with different views on the relationship between church and state should advocate and act with civility," Oaks said. "We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to boycotts, firings and intimidation of our adversaries."

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