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Mormon church lobbying in Utah’s Capitol — hardball or light touch?

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 05:54 pm

Legislature » Ex-lawmaker Wimmer says LDS role in LGBT anti-discrimination bill prompted him to speak out.

Former state Rep. Carl Wimmer has ignited a fiery debate within Utah's political circles by accusing the LDS Church of bullying Mormon lawmakers on such controversial topics as illegal immigration, alcohol and, likely, the new law to protect gay and lesbian residents from workplace and housing discrimination.

A couple of former legislators back Wimmer, who recently left the LDS Church to become an evangelical Christian. A far larger group of Mormon lawmakers — including former Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, who sponsored immigration restrictions the church disliked — say they have never experienced the kind of heavy-handed tactics described by Wimmer in a blog post.

The one-time Herriman lawmaker's claims range from meetings between LDS Church lobbyists and select lawmakers that he compared to Mormon priesthood interviews, to an allegation that his ecclesiastical leader contacted him directly to pressure him to vote for a bill favored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

At its core, debate about Wimmer's assertions show how individual lawmakers respond differently to political persuasion delivered in the name of revered religious leaders. And in a state where more than 80 percent of legislators are Mormon, LDS positions can virtually assure passage of a bill or stop it in its tracks.

Wimmer, who served in the House from 2007 to 2011, recounted how the church, in 2008, supported a ban on so-called "alcopops" from grocery stores, believing they were enticing young people to drink. Wimmer opposed the bill, saying he didn't want to shift a lawful product away from a private business to state-run liquor stores.

A lobbyist for the LDS Church tried to change Wimmer's mind by saying the position came "directly from the top," which Wimmer took to mean the faith's governing First Presidency. As Wimmer walked away, the lobbyist said: "Don't worry; voting against us will not affect your church membership status." He said the assurance brought him a feeling of relief, and he voted against the legislation, which passed.

'The brethren' • Former Rep. Chris Herrod, who is Mormon, says he never heard any church lobbyists say a position has come "directly from the top," but he has been told they were representing the view of "the brethren."

Herrod and Wimmer were allies during a tense immigration debate in 2011, which ended with approval of a Utah guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants that they both strongly opposed (a plan that never was implemented because of a lack of federal signoff.) Unlike Wimmer, Herrod, R-Provo, had little problem being on the opposite side of a political issue from his church and he wasn't convinced that every position pressed by its lobbyists came from the faith's apostles.

"What 'the brethren' actually means is something up to interpretation," Herrod said. "I felt many times it was from the brethren of the [LDS Church's] public-affairs department."

Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, a big supporter of the guest-worker legislation, believes Herrod is misreading the situation. He believes any position delivered by the denomination's lobbyists, whom legislators jokingly call the "home teachers," is endorsed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, his counselors and the wider Quorum of the Twelve ­— just as the lobbying of any interest group reflects the stance of that organization's leaders.

"I view the LDS Church in the political context as the same as any other interested observer that wants to make their position known," said Bramble, who also is Mormon.

High pressure • Wimmer's blog said church pressure went far beyond conversations in the back halls of the Capitol, particularly during the 2011 immigration debate.

"What bothered me most was when my local ecclesiastical leader contacted me and attempted to persuade me to vote for the bill," he wrote. Wimmer declined in an interview to identify that leader or his position, saying he did not want to cause problems for the man.

"When I asked him, 'Who from the church headquarters has asked you to contact me?' he simply confirmed that he had been asked, but would not say by whom," Wimmer wrote.

Additionally, Wimmer said church lobbyists and House leaders conducted meetings to apply pressure that members derisively called "PPIs," or personal priesthood interviews, a name the LDS Church gives to private member consultations held by leaders, and which Wimmer had himself participated in as an elders quorum president.

He said he spoke with a House colleague who told him "what he had just experienced was an intense, closed-door meeting with select members of House leadership and LDS Church lobbyists who made it abundantly clear that when HB116 [the guest-worker bill] came up for a vote, he was to support the bill, period."

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