Some Mormons challenge directive to campaign for gay marriage ban

Contra Costa Times/July 1, 2008

Mormons have historically followed the mandates of church leaders, but some are balking at their president's dictate exhorting California believers to stump for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and to help finance its success.

In a letter circulated to all the state's wards, or congregations, president and prophet Thomas Monson called on Mormons to "do all you can" to support the November ballot measure "by donating of your means and time."

The church also advocated strongly for a successful 2000 California proposition that prohibited gay unions until May 15, when the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in a dramatic decision that opened the doors to gay marriage.

Two years ago, the LDS supported an unsuccessful bid to so amend the nation's Constitution.

"The LDS church - any church - has the right to do whatever it wishes, but I applaud the California Supreme Court's decision," said Martinez Mormon Susan Randall.

"In the eight years since the state proposition we have all become more educated," said Walnut Creek author and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson, also a Mormon. "Most people have realized they have a gay family member or a gay friend or people they work with who are gay. Most people are less quick to judge: 'I may not understand this, but I would like your happiness as well as mine.'"

Church officials referred calls to the Sacramento coalition behind the ballot measure. Spokesman Jeff Flint said the church is asking Mormons to walk precincts, telephone voters, put up yard signs and work in their local campaign office.

A former Brigham Young University professor - Mormon, married and heterosexual - is circulating a letter of his own. In it, he says he does not believe people choose their sexual orientation and that denying them equal opportunities "is grossly unfair."

"You should also know, not all faithful Mormons agree with our religious leaders' encroachment into political matters," the letter by Jeffrey Nielsen says. "In fact, a growing number of active Mormons, who have gay friends and family members, are coming to the conclusion that our current leaders are as mistaken in promoting discrimination against gays and lesbians as was the Mormon hierarchy in the '60s when they opposed equal rights for people of color, and our Mormon leaders in the '70s when they opposed full legal equality for women."

Nielsen, who lost his job at the university two years ago after speaking out about gay rights, has received numerous positive emails from other Mormons, which he said is a sign of the times.

The church, which once cast homosexuality as an evil choice and the upshot of faulty parenting, now suggests biology is the determining factor.

"I'm confident and hopeful we'll make even greater progress," Nielsen said.

A small but growing percentage resists dictates like Monson's, agreed Olin Thomas, director of Affirmation, a support organization for gay Mormons with a branch in Emeryville and several other American cities.

"Mormons in California tend to be more liberal than Mormons in Utah," where in 2004 voters overwhelmingly approved an identical amendment, Thomas said. But with the state's voters evenly divided over the November vote, "It wouldn't take a lot of swing votes to make it go either way."

Church members in California top 750,000, according to LDS figures.

"There is a yuck factor for a few swing voters," he said. "The church is really playing dirty."

"I'm not sure this is generational so much as an interesting development of independence among the rank-and-file Mormons," said Jan Shipps, one of the nation's leading scholars on the church, in an email message. "This is by no means the first time something like this has happened. In 1932, the president of the LDS Church published a letter to the Mormons that appeared on the front page of the Deseret News. The letter asked the Saints to vote against Franklin D. Roosevelt. But Roosevelt carried Utah in the presidential election anyway."

Even in Utah, some question the mandate.

An article on the church's position in the Salt Lake Tribune drew several indignant responses. Some said they resented being asked to contribute money for a political proposition on top of their required 10 percent tithe.

"If the LDS church could give me one valid reason of how gay marriage is going to damage my marriage, I would probably jump on the bandwagon and start handing out pamphlets, but they simply cannot," wrote one poster.

"Now it is clear: The church does not expect its members to think, investigate, or use their minds to look into this issue," wrote another.

The church's tenet on the family says all families need a mother and a father - a man and a woman, said said Elder Kent Archibald, a Utah resident working temporarily at the Oakland Temple.

"The prophet is very careful not to mix politics with the church except on matters that are fundamental to our beliefs," he said.

Walnut Creek Mormon Clark Pingree, who is gay, said he found Prophet Thomas Monson's letter "devastating" in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

"For the first time, the society and the government were giving me the validation I deserved," he said. "I wasn't nine-tenths of a person, I was ten-tenths. Now they talk about taking away something that was very uplifting." The letter also wrongly blames gays for the erosion of marriage, he said.

However, he said he doubts most Mormons would question a dictate from the prophet.

"Judging from what I've read, I'd say the general public's attitudes are changing," said Terry La Giusa, a Mormon and a member of Affirmation. La Giusa has lived with her partner for 21 years; the couple has two children. "But in the LDS church, what the prophet says goes."

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