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Pyle: Amendment 3, meet Bishop Wilberforce

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jan 24 2014 05:22 pm • Last Updated Jan 26 2014 11:47 am

Todd Christofferson found himself inside the United States of America the other day. And that was all that was required for him to have the right to express his opinion about a matter of public policy. So he did.

Christofferson, a Mormon apostle, gave voice to his church’s statement that it finds Utah’s particularly restrictive liquor laws just fine the way they are, thank you very much. So it opposes any of the several changes that may come before the Utah Legislature, which begins its annual session Monday.

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The Christofferson statement surprised many Utahns, Mormons and non. Usually the church is more subtle in expressing political views. It has respected the separation of church and state enough that its formal pronouncements on anything political usually focus on encouraging its members to be good, informed voting citizens.

The church will likely have its way on the liquor issue. Not only is Utah a largely non-drinking state, in accord with LDS teaching, but there are reasons apart from religion for the state to maintain a tight grip on the sale of alcohol. One need not be a Mormon, or anything in particular, to worry that alcohol can ruin lives and that problems such as drunken driving and domestic violence can and should be minimized.

Of course, because liquor in Utah is controlled by a state-owned monopoly, fiddling with it is something that is not so likely to offend the capitalistic sensibilities of the many Utah Republicans who also happen to be Mormon.

That might not be the case if the LDS Church were to come out in favor of, oh, say, more aggressive environmental regulations. Even though doing so would be another expression of a moral, even religious, concern that also happens to have practical, secular effects.

Or it would be, if Mormon teachings on health issues hadn’t been laid down at a time when people were worried about how drink and gluttony could befoul a body, but had no concept of how microscopic particles and sun-baked chemicals can debauch an airshed.

Meanwhile, another Mormon in good standing, Washington attorney Gene Schaerr, is exercising his right to not only speak out, but to practice his profession on behalf of Utah’s now wobbling ban on same-sex marriage. Problem is, Schaerr sent colleagues a farewell email that has leaked into the public domain, one in which he describes his decision to fight off the attack on Utah’s Amendment 3 as a religious duty.

"I have accepted that position so that I can fulfill what I have come to see as a religious and family duty," Schaerr said, "defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage in the state where my church is headquartered and where most of my family resides,"

Reminiscent of when Bishop Wilberforce, in a debate over Darwin’s recently published "Origin of Species," made a strategic blunder and his rival, T.H. Huxley, was reportedly heard to mutter, "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," before demolishing the good bishop’s anti-evolution argument.

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Amendment 3’s only hope of withstanding this flood of judicial scrutiny is if it can be defended as having a secular practicality — like, say, liquor laws — and not being laid down for strictly religious reasons — like, say, laws that have public schools teach the pseudo-science of creationism.

Because creationism, creation science and intelligent design do not exist outside a religious mindset, the U.S. Supreme Court has more than once barred them from public school science classes. Opposition to same-sex marriage may soon find itself in that bin.

If Shaerr manages to brand opposition to same-sex marriage as a religious cause, the friends of marriage equality won’t need many more enemies in order to win the day.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, seeks no more than to have a practical purpose.


Twitter: @debatestate

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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