LDS officials attend signing of Respect for Marriage Act, lean into religious protections

Utah-based faith says the new law shows the church’s position on same-sex marriage is “due proper respect.”

(Patrick Semansky | AP) President Joe Biden raises his pen and reacts to applause after signing the Respect for Marriage Act, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

Even as representatives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined others in celebrating President Joe Biden’s signing Tuesday of a measure codifying same-sex marriage, the Utah-based faith reaffirmed its belief in male-female marriage while praising the new law’s religious exemptions.

“We extend a heartfelt thank you and our congratulations to all who played a part in the passage of the amended Respect for Marriage Act,” the church said in a news release. “Their efforts to protect religious freedom as Congress sought to codify the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision are both historic and commendable.”

The bulk of the faith’s release, however, focused on the protections for religion.

Amendments to the bill specifically recognize that “‘diverse beliefs about the role of gender in marriage are held by reasonable and sincere people,’” the church stated, “‘based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises.’” Thus, the church added, Congress has now acknowledged the church’s position — that marriage under the church’s teachings is only between a man and a woman — is “‘due proper respect.’”

The release goes on to spell out the way that the act respects those diverse religious beliefs.

“The law states that it can’t be used to harm religious or conscience rights for faith-based institutions. It protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. It protects the grants, licenses, contracts and accreditation of religious schools,” the church noted. “And it ensures that religious organizations, religious schools and their employees do not have to perform or host same-sex marriages or celebrations.”

No law “is perfect,” it added. “But putting such protections in the federal code is a big step forward.”

Like the balance state legislators sought in 2015′s church-endorsed “Utah Compromise,” the faith said, “our efforts are helping the nation pursue freedom, fairness and respect for all.”

For his part, according to The Associated Press, Biden said “this law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate in all its forms. And that’s why this law matters to every single American.”

(Andrew Harnik | AP) President Joe Biden applauds after signing the Respect for Marriage Act, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

The LDS Church was represented at Tuesday’s celebratory signing ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn by Jack Gerard, a general authority Seventy who oversees the faith’s Public Affairs Department, and Republican Gordon Smith, former area Seventy and former U.S. senator from Oregon.

But church leaders may have Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a former Latter-day Saint, to thank for those protections. The Arizona politician, the first openly bisexual member of Congress, played an instrumental role in amending the bill, which had unexpectedly won the church’s blessing. Sinema also made headlines in recent days by switching her political affiliation from the Democratic Party to independent.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema of Arizona, center, joins former U.S. Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, left, and Elder Jack N. Gerard of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a photo before the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act by President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington on Dec. 13, 2022.

Robert Taber, national director of the grassroots group Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris, was “delighted” by the wide support the amended act received from people of faith, including those in his church, Muslims, Unitarians, Sikhs, Jews and others.

“The Respect for Marriage Act shows that we do not have to cater to the far right’s extreme voices in order to protect freedom of religion — quite the opposite,” he wrote in a news release. “Instead, we can come together through the democratic process, engage in good faith and find common ground.”

Notably, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a frequent ally of top Latter-day Saint leaders, on LGBTQ issues, opposed the measure, and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan released a statement proclaiming that “the Catholic Church will always uphold the unique meaning of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman,” while bemoaning the new law’s “insufficient” religious freedom provisions.

When the LDS Church first announced its endorsement of the Respect for Marriage Act last month, it repeated the Latter-day Saint doctrine on marriage but also applauded the efforts to preserve “the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”

(Andrew Harnik | AP) People stand on the South Lawn after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022, at the White House in Washington.

Supporters were delighted by the church’s support for legal same-sex marriage, calling the move “a dramatic reversal on previous statements.”

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.”

The reversal troubled other Latter-day Saints.

“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,” Stuart Reid, a former Army chaplain, state senator and public affairs representative for the church, said on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable. It caused me tears that we have taken this action.”

The amended version of the Respect for Marriage Act reflects the desire of President Dallin Oaks, first counselor in the church’s governing First Presidency, 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 said in a landmark 2021 speech at the University of Virginia. “Notwithstanding my years of working with judicial opinions, I prefer the initial route of legislative lawmaking on big questions.”

He reiterated that approach this summer at a forum in Rome, where he stated that “religious rights cannot be absolute.”

“In a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs or disbeliefs,” he said at the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit near the Vatican, “government must sometimes limit the rights of some to act upon their beliefs when doing so is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of all.”

News editor David Noyce contributed to this story.