Diplomacy the focus of LDS offices in D.C.

Salt Lake City Tribune/November 14, 2006
By Robert Gehrke

Washington -- The LDS Church's offices in the nation's capital are nondescript and have a low profile, much like the operation run out of them.

For about two decades, the faith has maintained a presence in Washington, primarily to keep up relations with ambassadors from various countries where the church maintains or looks to expand its missionary work.

“It is mainly to put a face on the church so [the ambassadors] know there are people they can talk to,” said Kenneth Bowler, director of international and government affairs for the church. “We have a lot of international activities, mainly our missionaries who are in 167 different countries, and in a lot of those countries, we have not only missionaries, we have congregations, we have buildings and are building buildings.”

Spearheading the diplomatic outreach efforts, Bowler supervises six full-time staffers, along with Ann Santini, the wife of a former Nevada Democratic congressman.

The office hosts dozens of ambassadors and their families at events each year, such as last month's Western Family Picnic at the Marriott Ranch and the Christmas light extravaganza at the LDS temple.

The diplomatic work takes the vast majority of the office's effort. The Washington office also coordinates a lecture series for ambassadors at Brigham Young University and hosts interns from the university. The Washington office and church headquarters are advised by the church's Public Affairs Committee, a panel of influential D.C. Mormons. Bowler estimates that just 5 percent of the work done at the office is focused on Congress or the administration.

On the occasions in which the church does get involved in policy issues, it is usually done in conjunction with other religious groups that bring an issue to the church. For example, the church recently joined other faiths in publicly supporting an amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Sometimes there is involvement behind the scenes, often through a group of lobbyists who volunteer their time to the church. It supported legislation that allowed it to lease land at Martin's Cove in Wyoming, a site where as many as 150 Mormon pioneers are believed to have died in a blizzard. And it helped craft a provision that protects the church from prosecution if it sends undocumented immigrants to do missionary work.

Other times, the D.C. office is consulted by members of Congress on matters that might affect the church. Sen. Orrin Hatch, for example, notified the church when he sponsored legislation to ensure individuals filing for bankruptcy can continue to pay religious tithing.

“I don't know that it made that much difference because he'd already decided he was going to introduce it,” Bowler said. “It's typical when you have a large constituent. One, you don't want to do them harm, and, second, if you're going to do something to help them, you want to let them know.”

It's much more common, Bowler says, for another religious organization to approach the church and ask it to lend its support for some cause, such as an anti-smoking campaign. The requests are sent to the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City. Generally, the requests are rejected.

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