This week, a three member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier judicial finding that Proposition 8 in
“Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and dignity of gays and lesbians in
and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to
those of opposite-sex couples. The Constitution simply does not allow for ‘laws
of this sort’.” Further the court determined, “The People may not employ the
initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and
strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the
right to marry.” (1) California
In response to the ruling by the Ninth Circuit, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a short statement on Tuesday that reads in part:
“The Church…regrets today’s decision.
voters have twice determined in a general election that marriage should be
recognized as only between a man and a woman. We have always had that view.
Courts should not alter that definition … Millions of voters in California …expressed
their desire, through the democratic process, to keep traditional marriage as
the bedrock of society …”. (2) California
Obviously, the Church is welcome to express its opinion on the merits of gay marriage. Superficially, press room responses like the one above give the impression that the Church holds a simple and popular position. However, like so much in Mormonism, one needs to dig a little deeper to find the deep ironies that sometimes characterize the deceptively simplified narrative the Church offers. In other words, some historical context is needed.
Point 1: The Church repeatedly avows its loyalty to the US Constitution, but in its response to the judicial ruling by the Ninth Circuit, it is being selective. Its statement lauds the initiative process but attacks the judicial functions of balanced government. In doing so, it joins, at least in spirit, other conservatives who decry the actions of “activist judges” with whom they disagree. The complete system of governance in the United States involves not only means for the majority to enact law, but institutions and concepts such as checks and balances that are designed to protect the rights of the people. Fundamental civil rights, especially minority rights, are not intended to be subject to the whims of the majority. The judiciary plays a prominent role in preventing discrimination by the majority. (3)
Point 2: The Church is on shaky ground invoking the supremacy of the democratic process in matters of public policy, because its own structure and modus operandi are far from democratic. The Church is a theocracy, ruled by 15 unelected men who are the final voice in matters of doctrine and policy. Exercise of power at all levels in the Church is supposed to be done in love and righteousness (a laudable goal), but regardless, Church governance flows structurally from top to bottom. It is not democratic. Even if we ignore the silliness of a theocratic institution lecturing on democratic principles, I wonder what the Church will argue when the day comes that the voice of the people in a particular state approves gay marriage. Public opinion on gay marriage is changing, and it is changing very quickly. Prop 8 did not pass by an overwhelming majority in
Point 3: In its very active political opposition to gay marriage, the Church is actively campaigning against the legitimate aspirations of a minority people. In seeking marriage equality, gays are not interfering in the liberties of others, but seeking only to advance their own pursuit of happiness. The Church’s own history of persecution as an unpopular minority should invoke, at a very minimum, deep empathy for LGBT persons who are fighting for equality under the law. Driven from
Point 4: Recently Church leaders have linked the advance of gay marriage to threats to religious liberty. These arguments are as much of a smokescreen as a genuine concern. Elder Dallin H. Oaks (4) and others (5), for example, may claim that gay marriage infringes conservative religious freedoms, but eliminating the opportunity for gay marriage infringes the rights of other religious groups and individuals to perform marriages that they believe are equally acceptable to God. The religious freedom argument is a twisted one: the Church is seeking freedom from the beliefs of others, not freedom to define its own beliefs. As long as the Church is not forced to perform gay marriages, change its doctrine, or alter its own practices in any substantive way, its religious freedom is not infringed. Of course there may be some legal complexities and some need for compromise to both implement legal gay marriage and preserve freedom for certain religious viewpoints, but blanket prohibition of gay marriage is not acceptable. Hearing a wealthy conservative religion with a public voice disproportionate to its actual membership size crying victim is a little pathetic.
Point 5: Finally, there is great irony in hearing appeals for “traditional marriage” from Latter-day Saint leaders. As much as Church leadership may prefer to whitewash its own controversial history with sexuality, polygamy was a major component of Mormon theology for decades before the practice gradually faded away during the late 1800s and early 1900s following intense public disapproval and persecution from the
Why the Church has invested so much energy into public opposition to gay marriage is beyond my comprehension. I can only speculate. But the ironies inherent in its political opposition are blatantly obvious to anyone who takes a careful look at Church history, doctrine, and culture. My conclusion is that the Church is exhibiting a bewildering disregard for its own history and culture in the process of publicly defending its position on gay marriage. Perhaps for those of us who have taken the courage to oppose the Church on marriage equality, our frustrations with its position are tempered by this thought: these ironies remind us that we are on the right side of history.
(1) Ninth Circuit opinion.
(2) LDS statement.
(3) The desegregation of schools mandated by Brown v. Board of Education is an excellent example of judicial sanity in the face of majority discrimination.
(4) Elder Oaks’s speech at Chapman University.
(5) An open letter from several religious conservatives.
(6) Official Declaration 1, contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, comprises the 1890 manifesto by President Wilford Woodruff that banned polygamy, at least in the
(7) The term sealing refers, in part, to an eternal marriage in LDS theology. Theologically, polygamy is enshrined in LDS doctrine in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
(8) This site contains very detailed information on early plural marriages in the Church including source documentation for most of the claims in the document. Most of Joseph’s additional marriages appeared to have occurred during the last few years of his life.
(9) Quinn, D.M. 1985.