22 January 2012

I'm sorry, California

“We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.” – Doctrine and Covenants 134:9 (1835, Kirtland, Ohio).

The unfolding of Proposition 8 was bitter, with ugliness on both sides. My Church was heavily involved in promoting the divisive measure, a short amendment to the California constitution that reads: “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California”.1 After months of divisive debate, Prop 8 passed in California with 52% of the vote. Some estimates suggest that contributions by Mormons to pass the proposition totaled 20-30 million dollars.2 This amounted to about 50-75% of the funding in support of the proposition even though Latter-day Saints constitute only about 2% of the population of California. In sum, over $80 million was spent in the campaigns for and against Prop 8, an amount that apparently made it the costliest social issue to reach the nation’s voters up to that time.3

Modeled after earlier efforts to combat same-sex marriage in Hawaii, Church participation in the Prop 8 campaign was channeled through a coalition.4 In the 1990s, Hawaii became one of the first states to confront the issue of gay marriage after a case claiming same-sex marriage discrimination made it to the state supreme court.5 D. Michael Quinn, a gay Mormon historian, described Church involvement in the Hawaiian campaign against same sex-marriage at both the local level and at Church headquarters.6 In fact, Quinn argued that the Church model of political participation via a coalition was patterned after its active opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. The LDS Church is officially politically neutral and does not endorse specific candidates for elected office, but it strongly asserts its political muscle in matters it finds to be of a moral nature. However, of the numerous moral issues over which the Church might become a vocal political participant (including poverty, abuse, totalitarianism, etc.) repeated political engagement with same-sex marriage rights in various states suggests that it has decided that the fight against gay marriage is of the highest priority.

Proposition 8 brought substantial media attention to the public debate about same sex marriage, but of course it was only a relatively recent event in a long series of political battles within California about same-sex marriage – Prop 22, Mayor Newsom, Judge Walker, the California Supreme Court – this continues to be an on-going saga.

In 2000, I was a new graduate student in southern California. At this point in my life I was very committed to being a faithful Latter-day Saint and was almost thoroughly in the closet about my own homosexuality. This was the season of Prop 22, an initiative put before voters that had exactly the same text as its successor, Prop 8. Passage of the proposition was promoted at that time, as I recall, as being necessary to ensure that California was not forced to recognize any same-sex marriage performed in another state. Same-sex marriage had not yet been made legal at that time in California, so this was a proactive move to halt the legal recognition of same-sex marriages that might be performed elsewhere. Whatever reservations a voter might have had about limiting gays’ rights to be married (e.g., libertarian proclivities), Prop 22 (at least as promoted) could appeal to the state’s rights sentiments of some Americans. Prop 22 passed by a large majority, and by 2005, a court ruled that Prop 22’s power not only limited recognition of out-of-state gay marriage but also prohibiting the performance of same-sex marriages within California itself.7

As with Prop 8 later on, the Church actively encouraged membership participation to ensure that Prop 22 was enacted.8 I recall participating one day in a small effort to show support for the proposition. Our local institute (young adult religious education) group on campus had set up a booth along the wide walkway that led up to the university library. With a few other students, I hovered around the booth for a short time one day. I don’t recall staying that long or probably doing much more than handing out some pamphlets. Years later, reconstructing my thoughts and feelings of that experience would be difficult, but I can only imagine that I was an uncomfortable mess of emotion and conflict. In the strange myopia that being in the homosexual closet brings, in this season of life I was also probably as much concerned about blowing my carefully-crafted cover as a straight person as I was over the glaring juxtaposition of my own homosexuality and my Church’s anti-gay positions.

In 2008, as Prop 8 efforts began to ramp up, Church pressure on California Mormons to “defend” marriage began again. At first, polls suggested that opponents of the proposition might prevail, representing apparently a large shift in voter sentiment from 8 years prior. This fact did not escape the attention of Church leadership. In official letters from headquarters at Salt Lake City, members were asked to help directly. Local leaders were then responsible for on-the-ground work. Perhaps like all congregations throughout California, our ward appointed a coordinator to lead local efforts. In my ward in a more liberal community in northern California, it was mentioned that members should act with respect. This message of respect for all, even LGBT persons, characterizes official Mormon communications, even if it is not practiced by all members. With Church membership mobilized, the fight was now on. Statewide, there were phone banks, donations, rallies.

By the time Proposition 8 came along and wedged itself for a season into the religious routine of Latter-day Saints, my mechanical acquiescence to the Church was beginning to erode. With a good friend in a key position in local Church leadership, I was still very much willing to listen to arguments against same-sex marriage. More than just an appeal to faith, were there solid rational arguments to oppose gay marriage? My friend and I had some discussions and I listened to his arguments, that now I can more readily identify as classic conservative reasons to oppose same sex marriage.9 For instance, a basic argument is that the principle function of marriage is to have and raise children. Gay unions obviously cannot lead to procreation.

As each of these types of arguments were advanced, I could recognize a basis of logic, but there were also valid counter-arguments. The procreation basis for marriage, for instance, suggests that there is no need for marriage for older couples well past child-rearing age or men and women who are unable physically or emotionally to have children. Thus, inconsistent logic emerges from this particular conservative argument – marriage exceptions can be made for heterosexual unions, but not homosexuals.

Shortly after the vote on 4 November 2008, Californians learned that Proposition 8 passed. From time to time an opinion is expressed that the Church was burned fairly badly by its involvement in Prop 8, though I think ultimately it is hard to quantify such an assertion. Certainly specific members were disaffected to varying degrees (some left the Church, others remained active but had wounded testimonies). Did tithing decline? How many members resigned? No doubt that inside and outside the Church, it’s fundamental opposition to gay marriage was and is unpopular with many people. Unfortunately, there seems to be a deeper feeling of distrust that emerged from the Prop 8 episode. In part, it was the tactics used in the political mobilization that left unease – the disproportionate sum of money, Utah meddling in California, and the discussion of politics in meetings where members were supposed to gather for spiritual refuge.

Despite the negative effects of Prop 8 in California, Church involvement in the crusade against same-sex marriage continues. A very recent report from Minnesota describes a letter from Church headquarters asking members to contribute to an anti-gay marriage initiative that will appear on the 2012 ballot.10 Also this month, a coalition of conservative religious individuals posted an open letter on-line opposing homosexual marriage.11 This particular letter was signed by Bishop Burton, a member of the presiding bishopric of the Church. Recent manifestations of the LDS crusade perhaps have taken on a new political tact, namely that adoption of same-sex marriage by governments will lead to a restriction on religious liberties.12 The letter Bishop Burton signed, in fact, explicitly complains that religious liberties will be infringed if same-sex marriage becomes a protected right. Without a legal background, I don’t know the various legal implications that same-sex marriage would bring. However, the recent law in New York State seems to carve out a reasonable exception for religious freedom while enabling same-sex marriage. Intentional or not, claiming that gay marriage restricts religious freedom makes the comfortable majority appear to be the victim. What about the religious freedom of individuals who believe that God sees people of all sexual orientations as deserving equal treatment?

During Proposition 8 my most overriding feeling was that I wanted the entire debate to disappear. The larger political debate hit too close to home: my own microcosm of conflict between being gay and Mormon suddenly was being played out on a grand scale. No one in this larger debate was necessarily going to respect the internal sensitivities that I cultivated to prevent the conflict from erupting in fury within my own soul. Gays and devout Mormons each felt that they had an important stake in this debate. But what about persons who were gay AND Mormon? In response to the conflict, I largely chose non-response; I wanted to hide and wait for the election to pass. In the end, I voted in support of Prop 8 just as I had done with Prop 22. It was a reluctant vote, one born of guilt from not following what the Church expected of me I suppose. That day at the ballot box, I tried to balance my disappointment stemming from Prop 8 with my excitement about an engaging presidential election. But on the issue of gay marriage, I was not yet ready to assert my independence. I’m sorry, California. I made a mistake.

In writing this post, I took some time to revisit some of the Prop 22 and Prop 8 history. On the one hand, these were uncomfortable episodes in my journey to understand my sexuality, but on the other hand, I think the dissonance caused by the Church’s involvement probably helped crack the closet door for me a little more with each event. Ultimately, the Church gains nothing of lasting value in these political forays into same-sex marriage. Gay marriage is advancing politically and most Americans of future generations will be embarrassed to look upon the resistance manifest in our day to the further advance of social justice. If marriage benefits individuals, families, and communities by promoting stability, commitment and sacrifice (as strong proponents of marriage reasonably claim), then it is an institution that LGBT persons need too. The pro-family Mormon Church should be a partner in advancing opportunities and freedoms for LGBT people. Yet sadly now it has dug in its heels, and like a stubborn person, it has chosen the fleeting pleasure of obstinacy over the long-term satisfaction of doing justice.

1. Section 7.5 of the California constitution.
2. Estimates given by HRC here and here and a magazine article here.
3. HRC figure.
4. The rejection of same-sex marriages within Mormon theology is shared by other conservative religions including the Catholic Church. However, many Americans still feel uncomfortable with various unique aspects of Mormon doctrine, so the Church has seemingly determined that opposing same-sex marriage through a third party is an effective way to engage in the debate. Practically, funneling resources and volunteer efforts through a coalition allows the Church to collaborate with like-minded groups and yet maintain enough distance from the issue to blunt significant damage to the Church’s public image. 
5. See Wikipedia articles here and here.
6. D. Michael Quinn. 1997. The Mormon Hierarchy. Extensions of Power. Smith Research Associates.
7. Some Prop 22 history.
8. Link here.
9. See Sullivan, A. 1996. Virtually Normal. Vintage Books.
10. Support sought for Minnesota initiative.
11. “Marriage and Religious Freedom
12. Elder Oaks, a Mormon apostle with a legal background, has in particular been in the forefront of making the LDS case that conservative religions are modern victims. See the following speeches at Chapman University and BYU Idaho by Elder Oaks and an article with some alternative perspectives.


  1. Very nice.

    I blogged about this issue a while back. Marrige is not a religious intitution - it is a civil one, at least in the eyes of the government. It is a civil contract that honors the religious traditions associated with it (i.e. they let ministers and rabis perform them). But I do not have to believe in ANY religion to get married. And no matter where I choose to get married, I have to get a marriage license issued not by a church, but by a civil authority. For this reason, all religious arguments against marriage equality will eventually fail. Just as they did when barriers to inter-racial marriage were struck down. The Church said a lot that too, incidentally (See Boyd K. Packer's talk http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6172 - the racial part is towards the end).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Neal.