Former Utah senator criticizes ‘secretive,’ ‘puppet-string’ lobbying by Mormon church

Steve Urquhart says he saw while pushing gay-rights bill that when church lobbyists whisper to legislative leaders, ‘things magically happen’ <br>

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Steve Urquhart moderates a panel of state and community leaders as they discussed issues surrounding homelessness in Salt Lake County at Salt Lake Community College South City Campus, Monday, February 13, 2017.

Former state Sen. Steve Urquhart on Friday criticized how he says the LDS Church lobbies legislators from the shadows — including how it used its influence first to fight gay-rights bills he pushed and later to enact them.

The St. George Republican recounted his experiences in a long Facebook post, prompted by the decision of legislative leaders to hire the church’s top lobbyist, John Cannon, to direct its Office of Research and General Council.

Urquhart said he has no problem with the hiring of Cannon — but launched into a long criticism of church lobbying that he says is too secretive.

He said the Mormon church “is seemingly incapable of finding the front door and walking through it. It doesn’t bother lobbying rank-and-file members or going on record in committee meetings like other political participants do; instead, it whispers to a few members of Republican leadership, and things magically happen.”

A 2016 review by The Salt Lake Tribune found that 88 percent of Utah lawmakers are Mormon, compared with about 61 percent of all state residents.

Given the faith’s sway over its devout members, he said, “this kind of ‘puppet string’ lobbying is dangerous. Plus, it simply is offensive. No other entity or group, no matter how powerful, gets to control things from the shadows in such a way.”

Urquhart said that is “a primary reason why the church is not better regarded in Utah by non-members, despite the considerable good it does.”

He added, “The church, no doubt, figures it would be criticized if it participated openly. Bingo! People throw elbows and bite in the public arena. Every participant catches a few. It’s not religious discrimination. It’s just politics.”

The LDS public affairs office did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.

Urquhart said he saw such secretive lobbying work against, and later for, gay-rights bills that he pushed for years.

He wrote that Utah’s landmark 2015 law banning discrimination in housing and employment based on sexual orientation “would not have passed without the active lobbying of the church, telling its members that they could support it. I know. Running it the previous two years, those same members — battling for that same religion — would have died before they voted for it.”

He said he told reporters who asked in the months leading up to the 2015 session, “I have very little say over this. Talk to the Mormon Church. ... If it wants non-discrimination legislation to pass it will pass. If it remains silent, its teaching from the past will control, and the bill will die.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Senator Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, is joined by senators, representatives, LDS leaders, and members of the LGBT community as he discusses the fine points of the nondiscrimination bill SB256, during a press announcement at the Utah Captiol.

He said he is unsure whether such comments swayed the church. “In any event, its power over the outcomes of LGBT legislation — contrary for many years and, ultimately, pro on SB296 — was astounding.”

He added that the church misled him even in 2015, insisting it was pushing no LGBT-related legislation that year besides what was in his bill.

But, he said, then SB297 popped up, allowing county clerks with religious objections to avoid performing gay marriages so long as they arranged for someone else in the office to officiate. The bill “was birthed full grown in the last days of the session; we saw that there indeed had been another game plan for some time. We had simply been lied to by our ‘partners.’ We managed to scramble and get that bill in a good place, too; but, man, what’s wrong with the front door?”

He added, “That level of dishonesty just isn’t seen at the state Capitol on other issues with other players.”

Despite all that, Urquhart said he does not have a problem with the hiring of Cannon, the former top church lobbyist, to head the Legislature’s research and bill-drafting office.

“I have worked closely with John Cannon. He staffed the House Rules Committee when I was chair. He is a capable individual and a quality individual. He will be loyal to the Legislature and to the taxpayers.”

Cannon had been a legislative staffer before he went to work for the LDS Church.

Urquhart’s comments are not the first time that former legislators have created a stir about LDS lobbying.

In 2015, former Rep. Carl Wimmer — who left the LDS Church to become an evangelical Christian — accused the church of bullying Mormon lawmakers on such controversial topics as illegal immigration, alcohol and gay rights.

The former Herriman Republican compared meetings between Mormon church lobbyists and select lawmakers to LDS priesthood interviews and alleged that his local church leader contacted him directly to vote for a bill favored by the faith.

A couple of former legislators backed Wimmer’s claims. A far larger group of Mormon lawmakers said they never experienced the kind of heavy-handed tactics that Wimmer described.

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