Billboards quoting Mormon scripture to support medical marijuana initiative reappear after temporary removal

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A billboard supporting Proposition 2 by quoting the LDS 'Word of Wisdom' appears on the 600 South off ramp of I-15 on Thursday, Sept. 20. It lacked disclosure about who paid for it.

A new billboard on the busy 600 South off ramp of Interstate 15 on Thursday urged Utahns to vote for Proposition 2 to legalize medical marijuana by quoting the LDS “Word of Wisdom” — most famous for leading to the faith’s ban on coffee, tobacco and alcohol.

The church itself, of course, is urging its members to vote against the ballot initiative.

Exactly who paid for the ad attempting to use Latter-day Saint scriptures against the church’s stand is a mystery, allowed because of an apparent loophole in Utah election law. Reagan Outdoor Advertising removed the ad temporarily Thursday to review that law, but the sign was back up on Friday.

The billboard says, “All Wholesome Herbs God Hath Ordained for the … Use of Man. D&C 89:10,” referring to Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The section is often called the Word of Wisdom. The church teaches that its founding prophet, Joseph Smith, received this health code through revelation to advise about food and herbs that are good for humankind and others that should be avoided, including alcohol and tobacco. It does not specifically mention marijuana.

The billboard also says in bold, all-capitalized lettering, “VOTE YES PROP 2.”

It does not include a disclaimer to show who paid for it, which is required on most political advertising. But the office of Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s top election official, says a loophole apparently does not require such disclosure for ads about ballot initiatives.

Groups behind the initiative denied responsibility for the ad.

“Those billboards are not from our campaign,” said DJ Schanz, director of the Utah Patients Coalition, which put Prop 2 on the ballot and is leading the campaign for it. “We have not bought any billboards.”

Similarly, Christine Stenquist, president and founder of TRUCE (Together for Responsible Use and Cannabis Education), a major supporter of Prop 2, said, “TRUCE has nothing to do with it.”

Dewey Reagan, president and general manager of Reagan Outdoor Advertising, which owns the billboard, declined to identify the advertiser.

But he said his company pulled down the ad temporarily to review whether state law requires disclosure, or until the advertiser reveals its identify on the sign. He said other similar billboards had been purchased and were scheduled to appear soon.

He added that he did not feel the usually required disclosure “had been omitted intentionally.”

By Thursday afternoon, the sign had been removed, but reappeared Friday. A similar ad — a digital one on a Reagan electronic billboard along Bangerter Highway — was seen Thursday evening quoting a Book of Mormon verse about the duty to care for the sick and needy to push for Prop 2.

Who paid for those ads remains a mystery.

Utah Code 20A-11-901 requires political ads for candidates — including billboards — to include disclosure showing who paid for them. But it does not specifically require that for groups advocating or opposing ballot initiatives.

“You have found in the code what I would call a loophole. It doesn’t require the same disclosure for advertising about propositions as it does for candidates,” said Justin Lee, state election director for Cox.

Until now, “I can’t think of a specific instance where this has come up, but we also haven’t had a lot of statewide initiatives in the past,” Lee said.

Still, he said, his office may make a deeper review of the law. “It sounds like something we may need to look into, and see if there is a requirement there” for disclosure.

He said it is possible that whoever bought the ad may remain anonymous, and not even show up in spending disclosure forms that most political groups must file with the state.

The next such report is due on Oct. 1 from candidates, political issues committees, political action committees and, in some cases, corporations. But Lee said a wealthy individual buying the ads could escape such reports — leaving the advertiser anonymous.

Meanwhile, Schanz with the pro-Prop 2 Utah Patients Coalition, said, “I’m not discouraged or encouraged” by an outsider jumping in with the ad for Prop 2.

“People are extremely passionate about the issue,” he said, “and are willing to do whatever it takes to get Proposition 2 passed. Sometimes that means going off and doing their own thing.”

The LDS Church gave what it said was a lighthearted written response to the ad, saying it was pleased that its scriptures were quoted — and perhaps reading them will help more people join with its opposition to Prop 2. But the wording of its statement may be a bit confusing.

“It appears those who built the billboard are looking at the scriptural teaching of the Word of Wisdom,” wrote Marty Stephens, the church’s director of community and government relations. "We presume they understand the church’s position on Prop 2. We join them in encouraging a vote against the initiative.”