In the incoming Utah Legislature, three of every four members are men. That lopsided majority is still smaller than the big margin Republicans enjoy: four of every five.
But another, even larger, supermajority exists: Nine of every 10 legislators are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
They hold a 91-13 edge, according to research by The Salt Lake Tribune utilizing past surveys, campaign websites, members’ social media pages and direct calls and emails to some lawmakers.
Twelve of the 13 who are not Latter-day Saints are Democrats. The only non-LDS Republican in the Legislature is Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, a Baptist and former president of Weber State University. As the majority assistant whip, she also is a new member of the GOP Senate leadership.
So Latter-day Saints hold 87.5 percent of the seats, while recent state data show that 61.6 percent of Utahns are members of the state’s predominant faith. That means the number of seats held by Latter-day Saints is about 42 percent higher than their population would predict.
Non-Mormons increased their numbers by one since the 2016 election.
The Latter-day Saint supermajority raises many questions about the influence of the church on Utah lawmaking. Many legislators say the faith has little effect on most run-of-the-mill issues, but it does influence those in which the church has strong stands such as alcohol, gambling, marijuana, assisted suicide, immigration and gay rights.
Outgoing Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is a former Latter-day Saint who was replaced by another former Mormon, Democratic Sen. Derek Kitchen, who says he is now an atheist. Dabakis says the church and Latter-day Saint legislators seem less concerned in recent years with the view of colleagues who are not of their faith on key issues.
“I’ve seen a dramatic change since Marty Stephens was hired by the LDS Church as its lobbyist” in 2017, Dabakis says. Stephens is a former Utah House speaker.
“What Marty gives you is the approach of a partisan politician and a speaker, that is counting the votes and getting the troops in line,” he says. “That’s probably necessary for a speaker. But I think it has harmed the LDS Church.”
Dabakis says that in past years, the church did not lobby just to marshal votes but also to listen to concerns, communicate and negotiate.
For example, he says that he and the late Latter-day Saint apostle L. Tom Perry had “excruciating, long and difficult meetings” before they came up with a 2015 bill to ban housing and job discrimination against gays. While such bills had foundered for years, once the church endorsed the negotiated legislation, it passed with ease.
“Now there is not enough listening going on to the people who are not LDS,” Dabakis says. “There isn’t even a perfunctory check-in anymore.”
Dabakis complains that decisions, for example, about Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving law “were made by people who don’t drink and many of whom have never had a drink,” and drinkers and non-LDS folk feel disenfranchised.
He says when the Legislature just rewrote a medical marijuana initiative passed by voters amid LDS Church opposition, leaders negotiated with some opponents, “but the ones they found were LDS.”
Dabakis also argues that Republicans work out most controversial issues behind closed doors in their caucuses — but they include only one non-Latter-day Saint, creating more than an impression that those outside the faith often become nonfactors.
Incoming House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton, who is a Latter-day Saint, says the church has been transparent in recent years when it has chosen to jump into a few key issues — allowing other sides to see what it is doing and also chime in.
“Anything the church has weighed in on has been very transparent to members of the body as well as the public," he says. “Proposition 2 [legalizing medical marijuana, a measure opposed by the church] is a prime example of that.”
Another example, Wilson says, was two years ago when he sponsored an alcohol reform bill that included erasing the “Zion Curtain,” a barrier to prevent children and others from seeing alcoholic drinks mixed or poured. It “was very clear they were involved in that discussion,” and [church] support was crucial to passage.
Still, Wilson says, “I find it surprising how often people outside the Legislature believe the church is weighing in on issues when, in fact, it is very rare. ... Right now, my calendar is full of groups that want to meet and discuss issues. I don’t have any meetings with the LDS Church on my calendar.”
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, the only Jewish member of the Legislature, similarly says, “People would be surprised at the few number of issues that the [LDS] church gets involved in. The ones they do are important, but it’s not everything up here — and there are people who seem to think it is everything.”
She adds, however, “Sometimes I think it’s not necessary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to get involved because there are so many members of the church here that they already have similar views on certain topics. Maybe an example of that would be like gambling.”
Only Utah and Hawaii ban all gambling, including lotteries — but many Utahns support the casinos in Nevada border towns like West Wendover and Mesquite, and flock to buy Idaho lottery tickets when jackpots are big.
Pressure from church?
House Democratic leader Brian King, of Salt Lake City, who is a Latter-day Saint, says that, in his experience, the church is not a bully and does not strong-arm lawmakers as it lobbies.
“I mean, I voted for Prop 2, and I voted against the legislative revision to it. But I didn’t give a moment’s thought about being pressured or retaliated against. While I knew the church’s position, I had to compare it to my own feelings and what I should do to represent my district,” he says. “I think most members do the same.”
But he says a few do seem “to make it their mission to make sure state laws match the views of the church — at least their extreme views of what they think the church wants.”
Arent adds, “Some members are, I think, more influenced by their religion than others. Even within the same religion, some people are more influenced than others.”
While King and others say the LDS Church does not bully lawmakers, one who disagrees is former GOP Rep. Carl Wimmer, who left the LDS Church to become an evangelical Christian. He created a stir in 2015 with a blog accusing the church of bullying Latter-day Saint lawmakers on illegal immigration and alcohol.
He said his own Latter-day Saint leader called to lobby him after receiving calls from higher-ups. And he said church lobbyists joined with House leaders to tell a colleague that when an immigrant guest worker bill came up, “He was to support the bill, period.”
Some legislators at the time backed Wimmer’s assertions. Others said they never saw anything like what he described. The church also says Latter-day Saint legislators are free to vote and act as they wish.
How are non-LDS treated?
With so many Latter-day Saints in the Legislature, how are others treated? Does it hurt their chances at passing legislation?
“Not at all,” says incoming Senate Democratic leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, a Methodist. “The only effect I’ve seen is that maybe they tease about coffee,” which devout Latter-day Saints do not drink, but which Mayne says helps her keep up energy on long days.
Mayne tends to pass among the most bills of any Democrat and says her religion never enters into it. “They look at the legislation, and what it does. Not my religion.”
Arent says that as the Legislature’s only Jew, she often reminds leaders about when High Holy Days are, and asks that they not meet those days so that she and other Jews may participate. “And they never meet then. They are so respectful of my religion.”
She adds that when her latest opponent attacked her by using religion, “Many Republicans and Democrats came to defend me.” Also, she is the co-president of the National Association of Jewish Legislators, “So I see things all over the county. And in Utah, I feel like there’s a lot of respect for members of my faith.”
Why so few non-LDS?
Members have plenty of theories about why so few non-Latter-day Saints are in the Legislature, and why almost all of them are Democrats.
Dabakis says that for years, many in the church felt that to be a good Latter-day Saint, they had to be a Republican. And he asserts that Republicans gerrymandered political districts to give themselves advantages — which by happenstance also helped created the extra-big Latter-day Saint supermajority.
“An argument could be made that religious discrimination occurred” by underrepresenting people of other religions, he says, and perhaps could be used to challenge future redistricting.
By the way, King and Wilson say the perception that good Latter-day Saints should be Republican is changing. They both note that many top Utah Democrats are active Latter-day Saints, and Republican Wilson even notes “most of the LDS bishops who are in the Legislature are Democrats.” The church proclaims political neutrality.
Arent notes that most of the non-Latter-day Saints come from Salt Lake County. “It is more diverse,” and is now only 48.9 percent Mormon. “Democrats represent many areas in that county, so it makes sense that more Democrats are not Mormons.”
Twelve of the 22 Democrats in the Legislature are non-Latter-day Saints, while only one of 82 Republicans are.
“The Democratic Party makes an effort to recruit people from diverse backgrounds," Arent says, “and maybe that is not seen as much in the Republican Party.”
Mayne adds, “Democrats are a party with a big umbrella, so I think people of all backgrounds just feel comfortable there.”
For the record, the following are the members of the Legislature who are not Latter-day Saints. All others are members of that church, according to Tribune research:
• Senate Democrats: Jani Iwamoto (Japanese Church of Christ); Derek Kitchen (atheist); Karen Mayne (Methodist); and Kathleen Riebe (nonaffiliated).
• Senate Republicans: Ann Milner (Baptist).
• House Democrats: Patrice Arent (Jewish); Jen Dailey-Provost (nonaffiliated); Sandra Hollins (Baptist); Karen Kwan (nondenominational); Stephanie Pitcher (nonaffiliated); Angela Romero (Catholic); Elizabeth Weight (Unitarian) and Mark Wheatley (Catholic).
Correction: Jan. 21, 7:45 a.m. >> An earlier version failed to include Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City, a Unitarian, among members who are not LDS.