‘That doesn’t mean that President Oaks understands politics’ — LDS duo argues against Respect for Marriage Act

Two leading conservative members say the church’s stance betrays its doctrine, argue that leaders should stay out of politics on such issues.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency delivers the 2021 Joseph Smith Lecture in the Dome Room of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. He argues that legislative remedies are better than litigation when trying to balance religious freedoms and LGBTQ rights.

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its support of the Respect for Marriage Act, which is designed to codify same-sex marriage while safeguarding religions from embracing such unions in their policies and practices, many members, especially LGBTQ allies, rejoiced.

Not all of the faithful, however, agreed with the historic decision.

Paul Mero, former president of the conservative Sutherland Institute think tank, says his faith’s backing of LGBTQ rights in recent years led to this unwise and unnecessary move. And Stuart Reid, a former Army chaplain, state senator and public affairs representative for the church, says it’s misguided for the faith to tacitly endorse civil same-sex marriage when the practice is viewed doctrinally as an “abomination” to God.

In The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, Mero and Reid explain their belief that the Utah-based church should stay out of politics and the so-called culture wars. Here are excerpts:

What was your initial reaction when you heard about the church’s support of the Respect for Marriage Act?

Mero • It certainly surprised me because it’s in total contradiction to church doctrine. You know, we oppose same-sex marriage for doctrinal reasons and you would think that any church would make any move that would support its doctrine.

Reid • Frankly, I was stunned, and I would have to say very, very saddened by it. I started with the church in public affairs as their lead staff guy in organizing national organizations to stop same-sex marriage in Hawaii and California in the 1990s. … So I was frankly disturbed that they highlight our doctrine opposed to same sex-marriage, an affront to God, and then endorse the statutory legalization of same-sex marriage in the same breath. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable. So, it caused me tears that we have taken this action. And I’ll tell you, it’s my belief this is a consequence of our deep involvement in the culture war.

Some have argued this compromise was necessary to protect from having to allow same-sex marriages in chapels and temples. Was this ever a real danger?

(Courtesy) Paul Mero, left, and Stuart Reid. Both say their faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was wrong to endorse the Respect for Marriage Act.

Reid • No. This is a characteristic of fear-mongering in the culture war. And, frankly, both sides were suckered by it. … The whole idea that under the First Amendment, the court or anybody else would dictate to the church marriage in our temples or anything of that nature is just nonsense on its face. And so, from my perspective, this doesn’t do anything to help one way or the other. It all can be challenged and will be challenged. What we did is we sacrificed our doctrine on this issue, and it’s caused great confusion among church members.

What are your main objections to the bill?

Reid • My concern about the bill is the church’s position on it. Can you imagine Shadrach, Meshach and Abendigo saying to King Nebuchadnezzar, “Hey, King, we’ll endorse your call to serve your gods and worship your golden idol, if you’ll just give us prayer rights, so we can continue to pray to our God.” The whole narrative would be different in the Old Testament. In fact, it would be shameful. It’s a narrative now of courage and faith. … [Plus,] our allies — the same people that we organized in the ‘90s to stop same-sex marriage and then called them back in for Prop 8, hard, hard-won allies, people of other faiths, had real suspicions about our church — they’re now questioning what our doctrine actually means to us. And I know because I’ve talked to them. And so that’s another downside to this whole approach.

Mero • The problem is that the supposed religious freedom protections really only protect one of the three layers of religious freedom, and that’s worship services and that is not under attack. And if it ever is, I don’t know what this country would look like. For instance, let’s just say that there are folks who hate religion, you know, organized religion. They’re perfectly comfortable with our worship service. … I have been a culture warrior for 40 years now, who believes that the culture war was lost in the ‘90s. I’ll just say that generally this will go very, very badly for the LDS Church and for people of faith.

President Dallin Oaks of the church’s governing First Presidency has advocated these sort of legislative remedies — instead of litigation — to balance LGBTQ rights and religious liberties. He even stated that religious rights “cannot be absolute.” How is that wrong?

Mero • Just because religious freedom rights aren’t absolute doesn’t mean that you deny church doctrine or overturn your your own church doctrine and support same-sex marriage. That makes no sense.

Reid • The reason I don’t think that a legislative remedy is a remedy at all is because when you’re talking about a conflict of rights. Legislators don’t solve those problems….This will end up in the courts…. So, you know, some in the church said, well, we’ve made peace. No, that’s not what happened. We didn’t make peace. We switched sides in the culture war, in this instance.

What are your thoughts about the church’s top leaders?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivers a keynote address at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in Rome on July 20, 2022. In his speech, he said religious rights "cannot be absolute."

Reid • I love the Brethren. I sustain them 100%. I’ve done many, many things for some of the most senior brothers, personally and professionally, that people would wonder why. I’m totally dedicated to them. I esteem them highly, but there are times like these when they get advice, in this case from lawyers who are doing this fear-mongering. Again, on both sides of the issue. Both the gays and both our church have been ill-advised as to the importance or necessity of this legislation.

Mero • I love and admire President [Dallin] Oaks and I sustain him as a prophet, seer and revelator as I do all of the Brethren. Having said that, though, that doesn’t mean that they know politics. It doesn’t mean that they’re experts at moving the legislation anywhere except in Utah, where all they have to do, you know, is lean over and whisper and, you know, send the “home teachers” to [Capitol] Hill and whisper in the ear of somebody. That doesn’t mean that President Oaks understands politics and its application and how it plays out. I would say that my 10 years on Capitol Hill match anything that any of the Brethren could say about how politics works.

Given the church’s stance now on this, does it mean that church members, local leaders and BYU professors can openly support civil same-sex marriage?

Reid • It’s very confusing right now. The church apparently is firing, releasing and furloughing professors and adjunct professors, because they’re flying too close to the sun on this issue. Well, how do you justify that when your own church just endorsed the statutory legalization of same-sex marriage federally? … Is it any wonder that they try to push the envelope as far as they can at BYU or any other place in the church?

Mero • I’m wondering now which faction is going to leave the church in droves. The Orthodox faithful who are like, “What the hell?” Or the LGBTQ crowd and allies, who are still struggling with the whole thing? Neither Stuart nor I, you know, are saying that the church shouldn’t talk about and preach the doctrines. We’re just saying do it over the pulpit and let us govern ourselves. Let us, as faithful members of the church, live our faith, and as citizens of the United States of America.

To hear the full podcast, go to sltrib.com/podcasts/mormonland. To read a complete transcript and receive other exclusive Tribune religion content, go to Patreon.com/mormonland.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.