Tom Walker: Will the LDS Church repeat history with the ERA?

The most powerful ERA opposition group has yet to meaningfully weigh in on the question.

(The Associated Press) Sonia Johnson is led away from an LDS temple by a police officer after she had chained herself to the gate during a pro-Equal Rights Amendment demonstration in Bellevue, Washington, on Nov. 17, 1980. Johnson was excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after publicly speaking in favor of the ERA.

In the early 1980s, while still a graduate student at the University of Utah, I joined my then-wife, Kathy, and became a “missionary for the ERA,” a program supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment that the National Organization for Women launched in Utah.

The effort was, obviously, styled after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ famous worldwide missionary/proselytizing program but without a church driving the undertaking.

“What on earth,” a Utahn might wonder, “would impel NOW to initiate that kind of mimicry, er, ministry, here?”

The reason, as it happens, is that for a time, ERA ratification appeared to be sailing toward success. State after state had ratified the amendment until, suddenly, progress stopped. A conservative firebrand, Phyllis Schlafly, had begun attacking the ERA as an affront to women that would work to harm, rather than protect, them.

Schlafly is often credited with being the wrecking ball that changed what many viewed as common sense into a partisan litmus test. “Conservatives” risked their stripes if they dared support it.

Schlafly certainly was an influencer, but the real power behind STOP ERA — at least in Utah — was the state’s predominant faith. In March 1977, Latter-day Saint apostle Boyd K. Packer wrote an article outlining the church’s opposition. In it, he wrote that “should the Equal Rights Amendment pass, it threatens to be chief among the problems which were intended to be solutions.” In 1978, the First Presidency sent a letter to leaders that explained how the ERA is a moral issue that members should actively oppose.

Without equivocation, the church opposed ERA ratification. Any and all church organizational and/or, if warranted, financial resources could and ought to be focused on stopping the process. After all, a fundamental tenet of Latter-day Saint teaching has to do with the hierarchy of authority. It is, explicitly, a patriarchy.

A July 25, 1977, New York Times article, titled “Mormon Turnout Overwhelms Women’s Conference in Utah,” demonstrates how the church mobilized members to fight the ERA. The reporter noted that “none of the organizers, who had anticipated a crowed [sic] of perhaps 2,000, was prepared for the 12,000 or so Mormon women, responding to their church’s call to insure the support of ‘correct principles,’ who streamed into the Salt Palace auditorium in downtown Salt Lake City.”

A small number of Latter-day Saint women became vocal antagonists of the church’s position. Sonia Johnson was excommunicated in 1979 for her ERA advocacy. Nearly 35 years later, Kate Kelly, a Washington, D.C., activist was also excommunicated. As I listened to Kelly when she began speaking out, I messaged her personally asking her to pay attention to Johnson’s experience. She was, I warned then, risking her church membership.

I was right.

In case any of the faithful doubted the church’s resolve on the matter, examples such as these made clear it was a bright red line not to be crossed.

But, hey, that was then, this is now, right?

Um, probably not.

As recently as 2019, church spokespeople reaffirmed the faith’s opposition to the ERA. As the “ratify ERA” train picks up speed, if it continues to do so, rest assured that church leadership here in Salt Lake City is paying attention. Given what I know of the church’s organizational and advocacy capabilities, a dawning likelihood of ratification will arouse the same juggernaut of oppositional hellfire that rained down on advocates in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Buckle up, ERA supporters. The most powerful ERA opposition group has yet to meaningfully weigh in on the question. When it does, it will come with the full authority of Latter-day Saint leadership behind it.

As a missionary for the ERA, I encountered a particular dynamic several times. Having engaged a household’s husband in serious discussion of the ERA’s merits, the wife interrupted with this: “The prophet opposes it. We believe in the prophet, and that settles it.”

Tom Walker

Tom Walker is a native Utahn and, other than teaching skiing part time, retired. He is an avid follower of politics, occasional writer and enthusiastic devotee of Utah’s incomparable natural wonders. He is fortunate to share a beautiful home with his beautiful wife and sweet (if prone to barking) chihuahua.