Gehrke: The LDS Church has always been a fixture at the Capitol, but this year it seems more engaged, constructive than ever

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Let’s start here: Despite the objections from some, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a right to have a voice in policymaking, just like the Catholics and Lutherans and Jews and Buddhists and Unitarians and … you get the idea.

The church represents a vast constituency in Utah and has a legitimate interest in what it views as moral issues.

Since before Utah was a state, we’ve seen the church use its political clout. And with 90 percent of the current Legislature followers of the faith, it has considerable weight to throw around.

At times, the church has taken a very public role, as it did during the anti-immigration craze of 2010, when leaders pressed for humane, reasonable immigration policy, endorsing the principles of the Utah Compact and working to pass a state guest worker program.

Or, in 2015, church leaders were key in passing a statewide law protecting LGBTQ Utahns from housing and employment discrimination.

In those instances, the church’s role was public, relatively transparent and constructive. In other instances, the church has used its influence behind the scenes to stymie bills it opposed.

Take medical marijuana. Back in 2015, then-Sen. Mark Madsen wasn’t shy in venting his frustration that the faith used its clout to kill his bill, without articulating why it opposed the legislation or trying to make it better.

That changed when fed-up voters put an initiative on the ballot that would have done what legislators had failed to do. The church didn’t like Proposition 2, either. But this time the faith was very public about its specific objections to the medical cannabis initiative and eventually came to the table, doing the hard work of negotiating the replacement bill the Legislature passed in December.

Granted, some cannabis advocates were upset with what they saw as meddling by the church. But rather than the church going nuclear and defeating the initiative — which polling at the time showed it probably could have done — Utah ended up with a bill that, in some ways, was an improvement on Proposition 2 and, if it works, could mean Utahns in need will get relief.

That constructive, pragmatic approach appears to have carried into the current session.

We saw that Thursday, when Rep. Craig Hall, Sen. Dan McCay and Equality Utah unveiled a bill that would prohibit licensed therapists from practicing conversion therapy on minors. Conversion therapy is the umbrella term for attempts to change the sexual identity of LGBTQ individuals.

The bill was the product of weeks of back-and-forth and fine-tuning language with the church, which wanted to ensure the legislation had a safe-harbor provision (like bills in 15 other states) protecting its bishops and lay clergy.

The result is one of the strongest anti-conversion therapy bills in the country, which could serve as model legislation for other states. And with the church not opposed to the legislation, it is likely to pass the Legislature.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said he built relationships with Latter-day Saint apostle Ronald A. Rasband and general authority Seventy LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. on the Governor’s Youth Suicide Task Force and from the start the church, which had already publicly repudiated conversion therapy, was receptive.

“We found quite quickly we had an area of common ground: We both wanted young people to be protected from harm,” he said. “There are many differences and disagreements that we have had in the past, but we could put that aside and focus on what’s best for youth.”

Williams said he has enjoyed working with the church this session.

“We all get frustrated with the legislative process," he said, “but when we can bring people together who have once been at odds, it’s powerful.”

One more: Hate crimes legislation had been stymied in the Legislature, ever since the church issued a statement against its passage in the wake of the 2015 anti-discrimination bill. At the time, then-Sen. Steve Urquhart said the church’s opposition flipped votes and killed his bill in the Senate. Since then, it hadn’t even had a hearing.

That is, until this year, when the church stated it was neutral.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher said he never blamed the church for blocking the hate crimes bill before and he had to fight to get a hearing after the faith staked out a neutral position. “At the same time," he said, “there are people who were willing to come to the table and discuss this after that clarification who weren’t willing to come to the table before.”

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill. It is likely to pass the Senate and we’ll have to see how it does in the House.

And, by the way, the church didn’t publicly endorse Rep. Merrill Nelson’s bill banning changes to transgender individuals’ birth certificates and isn’t trying again to ban secret recordings, like it did last year.

Yes, there are issues where the church won’t play ball — I’m thinking of Sen. Jerry Stevenson’s bill to raise the legal alcohol limit for grocery store beer to 4.8 percent, which has received a hard “nope” from the church. It should get a Senate vote this week.

But overall — whether because of new leadership at the top or because its lobbyist, Marty Stephens, is a former Utah House speaker who really gets the process — the church’s role this session has been more public and more constructive than I can recall, and we should give it credit for that when it’s due.