From a practical, political standpoint, the decision by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to endorse federal legislation codifying same-sex marriage in the United States doesn’t mean much.
The bill, written in response to Justice Clarence Thomas’ casual suggestion that the court should revisit its prior ruling on marriage equality, had already easily passed the House — with all four Latter-day Saint Republican members of Utah’s delegation supporting it — and appeared headed for passage in the Senate before the church weighed in.
On Wednesday, senators voted 62-37 to advance the bill to a final vote.
It’s a reflection of how far we’ve come as a nation. Same-sex marriage, once hotly contested, now has widespread support from 71% of the public, according to a Gallup Poll earlier this year — almost a complete reversal from where public opinion stood in 1996.
In Utah, support was even higher, with 72% agreeing same-sex marriages should be recognized as legally valid, according to a Hinckley Institute of Politics-Deseret News poll in September.
So, practically and politically, the only impact of the church finally backing the bill is that it may give some political cover to Sen. Mitt Romney, who voted for the measure, and it might deter Utah legislators from trying to ban same-sex marriage next session.
The church was too late in joining the right side of history to matter.
But that doesn’t mean the shift, away from a church that just 14 years ago fought harder than almost any other to ban gay marriage in California, isn’t important to Latter-day Saints who have been marginalized and forced to choose between their religion and who they are.
“It’s validation that gay families exist and they’re worthy of protection and love, not just by their government, but also their faith,” state Sen. Derek Kitchen, a former church member who was one of six plaintiffs to successfully sue the state and win the right to marry their partners. “My hope is this will allow members within the faith to really genuinely embrace LGBTQ people.”
Kitchen had said he’d planned to propose legislation to codify same-sex marriage in Utah law, but he lost his primary in June.
“As far as changing hearts and minds, it was certainly a good step. And it’s easy for them because it doesn’t really change anything,” said Laurie Wood, who was one of Kitchen’s fellow plaintiffs, along with her wife, Kody Partridge.
“For those of us who do have friends or family who are devout members of this church, I think it gives them a little more emotional support to maintain their relationships,” Partridge said. “On a personal level, it is at least a symbolic gesture that makes our lives a little easier.”
Meggan Spadafora grew up in Utah County, feeling the guilt and denial of trying to reconcile her same-sex attraction with her family’s Latter-day Saint faith.
“There came a point where I just had kind of decided that I’d be alone all my life,” she said. “It wouldn’t be something I could explore, and it wasn’t something that I felt my family would accept.”
When she finally told her family, it was after she was already in a relationship and planning to marry. When her wife, Amberlie Wells, came out to her mother, she hung up the phone and refused to recognize their marriage for years.
Wells, who works in the emergency room at Primary Children’s Hospital, said she has seen the impact of that kind of treatment.
“Every week I see young children who are beaten down and isolated from their families for being who they are through no fault of their own,” Wells said. “The suicide rate in our youth here in Utah is rising. These are good kids simply looking to be treated as normal and be loved.”
Wells said she and Spadafora, who have now been married for seven years, don’t expect the church to allow them into its temples — neither has been active in the faith for years — but can’t understand why it worked so hard for so long to deny LGBTQ couples their civil rights.
“My marriage is no one’s business but mine and my wife’s,” Wells said. “No religion should be involved in marriage.”
Spadafora hopes the church’s position makes things easier for young people dealing with similar pressures that she endured, but recognizes they still won’t be accepted for who they are.
“I feel like it’s very hypocritical. I feel like they’ve spent so much time and money fighting against it, that now all of the sudden they’ve changed?” she told me. “Supposedly all their policies are revelation; that’s what they go off. So it kind of brings to light: Was it revelation or was it politics? What changed?”
It’s a viewpoint shared by former Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who lost his reelection bid after coming out. He said he was surprised by the reversal, but a new release doesn’t erase the church’s history and comes off as disingenuous.
“Why did they spend millions and millions of dollars fighting this for decades instead of just practicing what Joseph Smith taught — we believe we have the right to worship how we want and we afford others the same right?” Ivie told me.
That said, Ivie believes some members or former members struggling with their faith’s stance will take comfort in the shift and the new stance could make life easier for Ivie and his husband, Rick.
“It makes me hopeful that we’ll be able to live our lives freer of judgment,” he said, “and maybe some of my family members who have really struggled with my decision to come out, and Rick and I’s relationship, maybe now it will be easier to embrace us because of this statement from the church.”
To be clear, I am not — and nobody I spoke with is — suggesting any church should have to recognize or give membership to same-sex spouses. Government shouldn’t be dictating the terms of marriage to religions any more than religions should try to dictate them to governments.
Nor is it my place to forgive the church for the harm its policies and political crusades have done. The people who have had to live with the pain inflicted can decide if they are willing or able to do that.
But the church’s long-overdue shift moves the faith closer to the right side of history. It is now clear that an overwhelming majority in this state — including its predominant religion — are ready to stop fighting to deny a segment of our society the basic right to marry.
Love won. Now, hopefully, the healing can begin. And that is more important than politics.
Correction, Friday, Nov. 18, 12:45 p.m • This story has been updated to clarify that Spadafora and Wells are not active members of the church