In an unexpected move, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave its support Tuesday to a proposed federal law that would codify marriages between same-sex couples.
The Utah-based faith’s doctrine “related to marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged,” the church stated in a news release. “We are grateful for the continuing efforts of those who work to ensure the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”
The church’s remarks come after the act’s sponsors added an amendment to the House-passed bill exempting religious organizations, including faith-based universities, from providing “services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.” Neither could the act be used to alter the tax-exempt status of any organization.
The amendment also specified that the measure did not extend to polygamous marriages.
“We believe this approach is the way forward,” the church release said. “As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding.”
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, was “heartened to see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly take this stance today.”
He added: “Despite differences we may have, we can always discover common ground on policies and laws that support the strengthening of all families.”
Williams also stressed that while the latest version of the act “clearly acknowledges and protects the diversity of American religious and other beliefs, it does not do so at the expense” of its aim of “to safeguard marriage equality.”
Allison Dayton, founder of the Lift and Love foundation for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, said the church’s message is “huge.”
“It answers, once and for all, the question, ‘Can members of the church support same-sex marriage?’ The answer is yes, and the church does, too [as long as the wedding takes place outside of the faith],” Dayton said. “This news is an enormous relief to families of gay children who can now comfortably shower their gay children with the same love and support they give their straight children who marry.”
‘A dramatic reversal’
Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Michigan’s Kalamazoo College and author of “Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism,” called the church’s statement “a dramatic reversal of previous teachings.”
Dating as far back as the 1970s, he said, the faith has combated efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, which it framed “as a threat to children, churches and the nation as a whole.”
These efforts reached a crescendo 14 years ago when the church put its members and its money squarely behind California’s Proposition 8 to oppose same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing those unions came seven years later. Since then, Latter-day Saint leaders appear to have largely pivoted away from messaging around opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage and have emphasized instead their concern around protections of religious freedom.
If the church were to reverse course, Petrey said, now would be the time.
“This summer, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade,” he said, “some conservatives suggested that overturning Obergefell, the 2015 decision granting same-sex marriage rights, was next on the chopping block.”
The Respect for Marriage Act was drafted in direct response to that threat.
“That Latter-day Saints have chosen to support the Democratic-backed law in this environment when some conservatives are gearing up to revive this fight,” Petrey said, “signals a major break with other members of the religious right.”
The professor noted that this apparent shift is in keeping with other examples of “growth and accommodation of church teachings” employed by the Latter-day Saint leaders in response to changing social norms, including issues regarding race, birth control, women in the workforce and more.
Sustaining the law of the land
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, takes a more modest approach to interpreting the church’s endorsement of the bill.
“This seems entirely consistent with where they’ve been doing since 2015,” Mason said in an interview. “...What they always wanted was that they weren’t going to have to perform same-sex marriages in temples. But apparently they seem satisfied” that won’t happen under the new bill.
Mason told The Associated Press, meanwhile, that the move is “part of the church’s overall theology essentially sustaining the law of the land, recognizing that what they dictate and enforce for their members in terms of their behavior is different than what it means to be part of a pluralistic society.”
In 2015, for instance, when a Kentucky county clerk, citing her Christian faith, refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Latter-day Saint apostle Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, spoke out against her decision. Public officials, he said at the time, “are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices.”
The updated version of the Respect for Marriage Act moving through Congress reflects Oaks’ desire that disputes between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights be resolved through compromise and legislation, not litigation.
“Courts are ... ill-suited to the overarching, complex and comprehensive policymaking that is required in a circumstance like the current conflict between two great values,” Oaks, now a member of the governing First Presidency and next in line to take the church’s helm, said in a landmark speech a year ago at the University of Virginia. “Notwithstanding my years of working with judicial opinions, I prefer the initial route of legislative lawmaking on big questions.”
The faith’s latest announcement also is in keeping with the spirit of the church-endorsed, Legislature-approved “Utah Compromise,” which protects LGBTQ individuals from housing and workplace discrimination while also safeguarding some religious rights.
Utah politicians weigh in
Sen. Mitt Romney threw his support behind the latest version of the Respect for Marriage Act, telling The Hill “if that [religious freedom] amendment is attached to the bill, I’ll vote for it.”
Sen. Mike Lee, in contrast, remains unconvinced the changes go far enough in protecting the rights of institutions that may oppose same-sex marriage.
“Any potential threat to religious liberty must be met with a thorough and thoughtful defense,” he said through a spokesperson. “Current law, coupled with the Respect for Marriage Act, leaves certain religious organizations, educational institutions and individual exercise of religious beliefs more vulnerable to attack. I am actively working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to shore up those vulnerabilities.”
Lee’s vote may not prove necessary, however. According to CNN, key senators heading up the effort believe they have the votes needed for it to pass and are calling on the chamber’s Democratic leadership to put it on the floor for a vote as soon as possible.
Utah’s four House representatives — all Republicans and all Latter-day Saints — voted in favor of the act in the summer before the addition of the recent amendment and its exemptions for religious organizations.
Rep. John Curtis said at the time that he did not believe the Supreme Court had any intention of reversing any decisions regarding the right to marry.
“That said, I also understand how important codifying these protections are to many Utahns,” he said. “I do not believe the federal government should infringe upon an individual’s decision about who they wish to marry.”
State Sen. Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City and the only openly queer Utah legislator, also issued a statement, saying the church’s announcement was “a long time coming” and “I applaud their evolution on this subject.”
A ‘milestone’ act
Clifford Rosky, a professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law who teaches sexuality and gender law, called the church’s endorsement “wonderful news,” saying he was “thrilled to see both parties in Congress and people of all faiths coming together to respect the right of every American to marry regardless of race or sex.”
He labeled the act a “milestone” of bipartisan deal-making, made all the more impressive by the fact of its taking place in such a polarized political climate.
“It’s encouraging,” he said, “to see both sides put down the weapons of the culture war and focus on what we agree on instead of what we disagree on.”
Affirmation, a support group for LGTBTQ Latter-day Saints and their families and friends, “appreciates the work [the church] is doing with outside LGBTQ group to secure housing and employment rights,” Nathan Kitchen, the group’s president, said Tuesday, “as well as its support to codify marriage equality in the United States.”
Yet, a “great disconnect exists between the public sphere and the faith home of LGBTQ people, where Latter-day Saint families are offered less protections and equality within the church for their LGBTQ children than what is granted them by the laws of the land,” he said. “No amount of religious freedom success can compensate for failure within our spiritual home.”
Statement from the bill’s sponsors
The act’s bipartisan sponsors include Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
Together they released a statement saying “we’ve crafted commonsense language to confirm that this legislation fully respects and protects Americans’ religious liberties and diverse beliefs, while leaving intact the core mission of the legislation to protect marriage equality.”
Tribune reporter Emily Anderson Stern and news editor David Noyce contributed to this story.