From no to neutral? LDS Church may have changed its stance on the Equal Rights Amendment

(Courtesy photo) Anissa Rasheta, a national organizer for Mormons for ERA, is pushing for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in her home state of Arizona.

In the 1970s and ’80s, there was little doubt about where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stood on the Equal Rights Amendment.

It opposed it — steadfastly, stridently, prominently. Church leaders (women and men) preached against it, published articles against it, distributed pamphlets against it, launched letter-writing campaigns against it, lobbied against it and urged its members to do the same.

At the time, the church’s governing First Presidency feared the proposed 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — guaranteeing equal legal rights regardless of sex — could damage families, paving the way for, among other things, gay marriage, women in the military, unisex restrooms and increased abortions.

Forty years later, the societal and legal landscape on gender issues has seismically shifted. So where does the Utah-based faith stand now on the ERA?

It isn’t saying, at least publicly. When The Salt Lake Tribune asked for the church’s current position on the proposal, spokesman Eric Hawkins declined to comment.

However, Latter-day Saints still pushing for the ERA say they’ve been told by church officials in private that the institution is now neutral on the issue.

Sara Vranes, who is spearheading Mormons for ERA in Utah, sees this “mild evolution” as a positive sign. After all, the church, when asked, didn’t come out and say it was against the measure.

“We’ll take no news as good news,” the Salt Lake City resident said. "Maybe they don’t feel like the ERA is a threat anymore.”

Anissa Rasheta, a national organizer for Mormons for ERA who is pushing for ratification in her home state of Arizona, agrees.

“If the church no longer sees this as a religious issue, that is a big deal to members," said the mother of three from Mesa. “They’d be opposed if they were afraid their religious rights were being compromised."

In March 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. By 1982 — and despite a deadline extension — 35 states had approved the amendment, three short of what was needed for passage.

The ERA’s main clause

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Utah and Arizona, two states with large Latter-day Saint populations, were among the 15 states that did not ratify the ERA.

At the height of the debate about the ERA, the LDS Church famously excommunicated feminist firebrand Sonia Johnson not for backing the ERA (the church officially stated members were free to do so without fear of retribution despite its institutional push against the measure) but rather for how she backed it.

“That Mrs. Johnson had taken public issue with the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was not among the grounds for the ecclesiastical action leading to her excommunication,” the church said in a news release at the time. “But, in her advocacy of ERA, Mrs. Johnson expressed attitudes and views which went beyond that issue and constituted a direct and irresponsible attack upon the church, its leaders, doctrines and programs.”

(AP file photo) Sonia Johnson is led away from a Latter-day Saint temple by a police officer after she had chained herself to the gate during a pro-Equal Rights Amendment demonstration in Bellevue, Wash., on Nov. 17, 1980.

Talk of the amendment sprang up again in recent years after Nevada and Illinois became the 36th and 37th states, respectively, to ratify the amendment.

While many view as moot these new movements by other states to pass the ERA — Congress’ self-imposed deadline expired long ago — supporters argue that the Constitution sets no deadline for ratification of amendments.

Arizona could become the 38th and deciding state. Three bipartisan bills have been introduced there during the current legislative session.

Rasheta said one of those bills initially was co-sponsored by Sen. Tyler Pace, a Mesa Republican who also is a Latter-day Saint. Pace pulled his name from the measure shortly after it was introduced.

But during a public meeting Jan. 31 in Mesa — a gathering Rasheta also spoke at — Pace told those in attendance that he had called church leaders in Utah to ask about the ERA.

“He was told the church was now neutral on the issue,” Rasheta told The Tribune.

“When we learned they were telling lawmakers that their stance is neutral, we had members of our group call the P.R. department of the church,” Rasheta explained. “What they would tell people if they called, is for voters to talk to their representatives and research the issues and vote accordingly. They are not going to sway people in either direction."

The change is important but hardly surprising, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkansas and author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”

“What we are seeing here is that the church is responding to shifting realities about gender,” he said. Since the 1980s, as more Latter-day Saint women work outside the home, “the church has pivoted to make space for the shifting realities.”

University of Utah religious studies professor Colleen McDannell, author of “Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy," said it was inevitable.

“Not surprised at all about the neutrality,” she wrote in an email. “When the ERA became an issue in the late ’70s, Latter-day Saint leaders were pushed by a growing evangelical consensus that shaped much of their political agenda around ‘family values.’ Values that stressed the importance of binary and traditional sex roles.

“The great ‘panic’ that liberated women would be some kind of de-sexed monsters didn’t pan out," she added. "Women still are mothers and most actually like it. And a not-so-understated fear that equality would lead to lesbians marrying has actually happened.”

There is no measure before the current Utah Legislature to ratify the ERA. Then-state Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, introduced a joint resolution in 2017 — to 1970s-era chants of “Ho, ho. Hey, hey. Ratify the ERA" — seeking ratification. He did so again in 2018. Both years, the resolutions fizzled.

This year, though, there is a bipartisan joint resolution on Utah’s Capitol Hill “reaffirming the value of women."

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) ERA supporters stand behind Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, as he reintroduces resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendments during a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017.