In an unexpected move, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday gave its support to a proposed federal law that would codify same-sex marriages.
The doctrine of the Utah-based faith “related to marriage between a man and a woman is well known and will remain unchanged,” the church stated in a press release. “We are grateful for the continued efforts of those who ensure that the Respect for Marriage Act includes appropriate protections for religious freedom while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.”
The church’s comments come after the bill’s sponsors added an amendment to the bill passed by the House that exempts religious organizations, including faith-based universities, from providing “services, accommodations, benefits, facilities, goods or privileges.” for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage. Nor could the law be used to change an organization’s tax-exempt status.
The amendment also specified that the measure did not extend to polygamous marriages.
“We believe this approach is the way forward,” the church publication said. “As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom, along with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to restore relationships and foster greater understanding.”
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, was “encouraged to see The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take this position publicly today.”
He added, “Despite the differences we may have, we can always agree on policies and laws that support the strengthening of all families.”
Williams also stressed that while the latest version of the law “clearly recognizes and protects the diversity of American religious and other beliefs, it does not detract from” the goal of “ensuring marriage equality.”
‘A dramatic turnaround’
Taylor Petrey, a professor of religion at Kalamazoo College in Michigan and author of “Tabernacles of Clay: Sexuality and Gender in Modern Mormonism,” called the church’s statement “a dramatic reversal of earlier teachings.”
The faith dates back to the 1970s, he said, and has fought efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, describing it as “a threat to children, churches and the nation as a whole.”
These efforts culminated 14 years ago when the Church rallied its members and its funds squarely behind California’s Proposition 8 to oppose same-sex marriage.
The Supreme Court ruling legalizing those unions came seven years later. Since then, Latter-day Saint leaders seem to have largely turned away from reports of their opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage and instead emphasized their concern about protecting religious freedom.
For example, in 2019, the church opposed the Equality Act, arguing that it did not provide such protections. Instead, it embraced the Fairness for All Act, which adds religious safeguards.
If the Church changed course, Petrey said, now would be the right time.
“This summer, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade,” he said, “some conservatives suggested that the overturning of Obergefell, the 2015 decision granting same-sex marriage, was next on the chopping block.”
The Respect for Marriage Act was created in direct response to that threat.
“That Latter-day Saints have chosen to support the Democratic-backed law in this environment, while some conservatives are gearing up to revive this struggle,” Petrey said, “indicates a major break with other members of the religious right.”
The professor noted that this apparent shift is consistent with other examples of “growth and adaptation of Church teachings” used by Latter-day Saint leaders in response to changing social norms, including issues related to race, birth control , women in the workforce and more.
Enforcement of the law of the land
Patrick Mason, chief of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, takes a more humble approach to interpreting the Church’s adoption of the law.
“This seems completely consistent with where they’ve been going since 2015,” Mason said in an interview. “…What they always wanted was that they didn’t have to perform same-sex marriages in temples. But apparently they seem satisfied” that will not happen under the new bill.
Mason, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that the move “is part of the general theology of the church which is essentially upholding the law of the land, recognizing that what they dictate and enforce for their members in terms of their behavior is different from what it means to be part of a pluralistic society.”
For example, when in 2015 a Kentucky clerk, citing her Christian faith, refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, spoke out against her decision . Officials, he said at the time, “are not free to apply personal beliefs — religious or otherwise — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices.”
The Church’s latest announcement is also in keeping with the spirit of the so-called Utah Compromise, which protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in housing and employment while also protecting certain religious rights.
Utah politicians weigh in
Senator Mitt Romney supported the latest draft of the Respect for Marriage Act, telling The Hill: “If that [religious freedom] amendment is attached to the bill, I will vote for it.”
Senator Mike Lee, on the other hand, is not convinced the changes go far enough in protecting the rights of institutions that may oppose same-sex marriage.
“Any potential threat to religious freedom must be met with a thorough and thoughtful defense,” he said through a spokesman. “The current law, in conjunction with the Respect for Marriage Act, makes certain religious organizations, educational institutions and individual practice of religious beliefs more vulnerable to attack. I am actively working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to amplify those vulnerabilities.”
Lee’s vote may not be necessary. According to CNN, key senators spearheading the effort believe they have the votes needed to make it pass and are urging the chamber’s Democratic leaders to put it to a vote as soon as possible.
Utah’s four House of Representatives — all Republicans and all Latter Day Saints — voted in favor of the bill over the summer before adding the recent amendment and exemptions for religious organizations.
Rep. John Curtis said at the time that he did not believe the Supreme Court had any intention of overturning decisions on the right to marry.
“That being said, I also understand how important codifying these protections is for many Utah residents,” he said. “I don’t believe the federal government should interfere with an individual’s decision about who to marry.”
State Senator Derek Kitchen, D-Salt Lake City and Utah’s only openly queer lawmaker, also issued a statement, saying the church’s announcement was “long overdue” and “I applaud their development on this area.”
A ‘milestone’ act
Clifford Rosky, a professor at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law who teaches sexuality and gender law, called the church’s support “great news.” respect the right of every American to marry, regardless of race or gender.”
He labeled the act a “milestone” of bipartisan deal making, made all the more impressive by the fact that it took place in such a polarized political climate.
“It’s encouraging,” he said, “to see both sides putting down the weapons of the culture war and focusing on what we agree on rather than what we disagree on.”
Affirmation, a support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their families and friends, “appreciates the work [the church] is doing with outside LGBTQ group to secure housing and labor rights,” Nathan Kitchen, the group’s president, said Tuesday, “as well as his support to codify marriage equality in the United States.”
Yet there is a “great gulf between the public sphere and the faith area of LGBTQ people, where Latter-day Saint families within the Church receive less protection and equality for their LGBTQ children than what is afforded to them by the laws of the land.” granted. he said. “No amount of success in the field of religious freedom can make up for failure within our spiritual home.”
Declaration of the sponsors of the bill
The act’s bipartisan sponsors include Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.; Susan Collins, Maine; Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and Thom Tillis, RN.C.
Together, they released a statement saying, “we have used common sense to affirm that this legislation fully respects and protects the religious freedoms and diverse beliefs of Americans, while furthering the core mission of the legislation to protect marriage equality.” , left intact.”
Tribune reporter Emily Anderson Stern contributed to this story.