Much has been said of late regarding LDS Church involvement in our social and political affairs. Seemingly, this came to head with their overt involvement in California’s “Proposition 8” marriage equality debate, when they suffered from negative national press. In fact, many observers have argued that the backlash over their involvement in that campaign has prompted the LDS Church to adopt a softer stance, which has since helped marriage equality measures in other states.
If you live in Utah, however, it isn’t hard to see that the Mormons have not softened at all, they’ve merely changed tactics to a much more subtle, and more dangerous, type of involvement. Two recent events signify this new strategy and the problem we face as equality activists in Utah.
The first instance of their more subtle approach occurred on Jan. 29, 2013, when LDS attorney Von Keetch filed an amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in defense of Proposition 8. The brief, however, was not filed solely on behalf of the LDS Church, their name was buried among a list of other, smaller faith groups. This document is filled with the same oppressive arguments and bogus social-history claims that have been the hallmark of LDS opposition to marriage equality since the inception of this debate. Instead of continuing their losing campaign in the public arena, they’ve changed battlegrounds to one wherein the public scrutiny is less intense, but the stakes are much, much higher.
The second instance was localized here in Utah, during the 2013 General Session of the Utah State Legislature. As in previous sessions, Equality Utah prioritized a bill that would prohibit housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Reports surfaced that EU was involved in negotiations with various “stakeholders,” including the LDS Church, and that the bill would be released once the final language was agreed upon by all stakeholders. The bill was to be sponsored by a prominent LDS state senator, Curt Bramble. Bramble, historically one of Utah’s most conservative Republican legislators, remarked to the media that he would bring the bill forward if the LDS Church approved the final language.
As the 45-day general session dragged on with no bill released, some observers starting to worry. The community was constantly assured by Equality Utah’s Executive Director, Brandie Balken, that the bill was coming, they were just working diligently to make sure they “got it right,” which is Utah political doublespeak for “Mormon-approved.” This approval never came, Bramble backed out, and the bill was released near the end of the session through a new sponsor, Southern Utah Republican Steven Urquhart.
For the first time in history, after years of attempts, the bill was passed favorably out of the Utah Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee. Utah’s LGBT community celebrated this victory, but it was short-lived. The bill cleared committee with just a week left in the session, and with internal vote counts predicting failure, the sponsors pulled the bill without it ever being debated on the floor of the senate. Throughout the process none of the bill’s sponsors or advocates would acknowledge the role of the LDS Church, but Senator Bramble’s earlier remarks put it into focus: The Church would not approve the language. Negotiations were allowed to drag on to such an extent that the bill timed out at the end of the session. Another victim of church-state politics in Utah.
Still, however, the “leaders” of Utah’s LGBT community refuse to comment on the role and influence of the LDS Church in this event, ever afraid of awakening the “800-pound gorilla.” Even on peripheral issues the fear of LDS wrath is ever-present.
In May 2013, Weber State University, a public institution located in Ogden, Utah, announced its decision to name a building in honor of LDS leader Boyd Packer. Given the decades of anti-gay bigotry and denigration perpetrated by Packer, the Utah Stonewall Democrats sent an official protest to the Chairman of the WSU Board of Regents. Several Utah political figures and community leaders were asked to send similar letters of protest. One prominent state senator responded, indicating that he was unwilling to expend his political capital in an effort that would label him as a “Mormon hater.”
Last week a story came to light that prominent gay blogger Joe Jervis (Joe.My.God) had been disinvited as one of the Grand Marshal’s of this year’s Utah Pride Parade. Upon further inquiry, it was discovered that this retraction was the result of concern that some of his statements might be offensive to Mormons. The Utah Pride Center issued a statement that the LDS Church had no role in this decision, it was made by their executive director.
For decades the equality movement in Utah has lived in fear of the LDS Church and their power. This power was exhibited in all its glory in 2004, with the passage of Utah’s Amendment 3, enshrining into the state constitution the definition of marriage as a union exclusively between one man and one woman. With every piece of pro-equality legislation that finds its way to Utah’s legislature comes the ever-present fear that the conservatives will retaliate by enacting statewide policies that will undermine some of the gains made in municipalities, fueled by the power of the LDS Church.
Events transpiring around the nation and around the world, however, only serve to demonstrate how antiquated the Utah political strategy really is. Following the Proposition 8 campaign, the LDS Church took a public relations beating in the national press, and has since dramatically scaled back its public efforts in this regard, at least outside of its strongholds in Utah and Idaho.
Yet the strategy of Utah’s LGBT advocates is to continue negotiating behind closed doors of Utah’s capitol and to avoid any statements or actions that might arouse the ire of the LDS Church. That is the strategy of a bygone age, and one that only serves to reinforce the perceived power of the LDS Church. They are losing this battle in the realm of public opinion, which is why we can’t afford to let them switch battlefields.
It is long past time we force this issue into the light of day. Poll after poll we see the numbers growing for support of full equality, not just in Utah but around the nation. It is time to push, and push hard, for what is right. If that means we force the LDS Church to take a stand against equality in the public arena, then by all means, we should force that stand. With every such stand they lose members, they lose revenue and they lose sympathy.Faced with increasing negative publicity, they will be forced to completely disengage from this debate at some point in the very near future.
Undoubtedly pushing hard will result in a few more legislative losses. There will be pro-equality measures introduced at the legislature and in municipal chambers that might be defeated because of an adversarial strategy, but we need to be looking at the endgame, and this fight is one that history tells us we are destined to win. That will only happen, however, when we take up the fight in the light of day. When we, as citizens and activists, demand that our voices be heard in the halls of government — when we refuse to accept the status quo as “political reality” and change the paradigm.
As long as equality activists in Utah continue to fear LDS reprisal, we will continue to empower our own persecution at their hands.