The current battle over marriage equality in Hawaii isn’t the first time the Aloha State has tried to legalize equality. Back in 1998, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled a ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, a ballot initiative went directly to the voters who chose to reject the rights of same-sex couples. And just like Hawaii’s 1998 fight—and the 2008 Prop 8 battle in California—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a. the Mormon Church) is once again leading the charge against equality.
According to Mormon Church doctrine, worthy male members who marry a worthy woman in the Church’s temples are eligible to become gods and kings after the Second Coming. (The women are eligible to become goddesses and queens “unto their husbands.”) These gods and goddesses will be tasked with having numberless children in the afterlife and will form worlds of their own to reign over. The Church has used this unique belief of the afterlife as the basis for its opposition to marriage equality. As marriage equality becomes law in a growing number of states, the Mormon Church has asserted that same-sex married couples, being unable to produce children, threaten that familial structure. It doesn’t make any difference that the religion’s ministers and clergy would never be required to perform the ceremonies for gay couples themselves, nor would the Church’s sacred buildings be required to host such functions.
It was against this backdrop that the leaders of the Mormon Church first got involved in the battle against equality in the 1990s. As I detailed in Political Research Associates’ “Resisting the Rainbow” report several years ago, the Mormon Church was acutely aware of its unpopularity among more mainstream Christian communities. Leaked letters between Mormon “apostles” and “prophets” (their highest ranking leaders) revealed a coordinated campaign they had created with the Catholic Church and Evangelicals, where the other faiths would provide a public front, while the Mormons would use their substantial wealth and volunteer abilities in the background. The campaign was an enormous success, overwhelmingly defeating advocates for justice and overriding the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s ruling.
Emboldened by their victories (and underestimating the growing strength of the LGBTQ movement), the Utah-based church attempted to repeat its success in California by funding and backing Proposition 8, a similar ballot initiative which would override the CA Supreme Court’s ruling which legalized gay marriage. Yet unlike in Hawaii, where it worked largely behind the scenes, Church leaders were more willing to take a public stance, relying less on the Catholics or Evangelicals to front for them. While the campaign was successful, the PR backlash against the Mormon Church was massive and nationwide, as dozens of well-attended protests erupted around temples across the country, even on the Church’s home turf in Salt Lake City.
While the Mormon Church holds its membership numbers close to the chest, church historian D. Michael Quinn has said that the number of members who fled over the religion’s involvement in the organized opposition to marriage equality “deeply shook the church.” For a church that has historically struggled with national favorability and acceptance, watching those numbers plummet even further was vastly alarming to Mormon leadership and led to their endorsement of a non-discrimination law in Salt Lake City in 2009, and the creation of a website that seemed to soften its rhetoric (not its policies) towards LGBTQ youth.
But while the Mormom Church has been busy working to regain favorability and shift activist and media attention away from themselves on LGBTQ issues—particularly during the presidential campaign of prominent Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012—it has become increasingly apparent that its ideological agenda has never truly deviated and is moving ahead full steam.
In a precursor to what would come later, one of the Mormon Church’s “12 apostles” broadcast a televised message to all 15 million church members worldwide last month, telling them:
“Dallin H. Oaks bemoaned America’s dropping birthrates, later marriages and rising incidence of cohabitation as evidence of “political and social pressures for legal and policy changes to establish behaviors contrary to God’s decrees about sexual morality and the eternal nature and purposes of marriage and child-bearing.” These pressures “have already permitted same-gender marriages in various states and nations … Other pressures would confuse gender or homogenize those differences between men and women that are essential to accomplish God’s great plan of happiness” … An LDS eternal perspective does not allow Mormons “to condone such behaviors or to find justification in the laws that permit them,” said the apostle, a former Utah Supreme Court justice. “And, unlike other organizations that can change their policies and even their doctrines, our policies are determined by the truths God has declared to be unchangeable.”
The statements were the first time Mormon leadership had directly addressed the issue of gay marriage (publicly) in quite a while, and marked a dark precursor of things to come.
LGBTQ activist and political watchdog Fred Karger, who was the first to expose the Mormon Church’s involvement in Hawaii in the 90s and Prop 8 in California, has just filed an official complaint letter with the Hawaii Ethics Commission, alleging that the Church has been extensively lobbying the Hawaiian legislature without publicly registering. According to Karger, the Mormon church has been applying political, monetary, and grassroots pressure on lawmakers for months (if not years), but only within the past few weeks did they register a lobbyist.
The single lobbyist they registered? Linda K. Rosehill. The same virulently anti-gay lobbyist the Mormons used in Hawaii during their 90s campaign.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are extremely clever in what they do. Expect to see their Hawaii campaign adopt a hybrid of their two models of affecting anti-gay legislation by infusing cash and volunteers behind the scenes while only taking a moderately public stance so as to limit PR exposure.
Their work has already begun. On September 15th of this year, a letter was read over the pulpit to all Hawaiian Mormon congregations from the high leadership, demanding that members “study this legislation prayerfully and then as private citizens contact your elected representatives in the Hawaii Legislature to express your views about the legislation.” Less menacing sounding, and much less likely to grab many newspaper headlines, but when coupled with the direct orders from an apostle that all members oppose marriage equality, no less effective and an eerie reminder of the similar letter they sent out in June of 2008 to California members. That letter was followed by nearly $20 million in donations from members around the world, and over 500,000 hours of volunteer hours logged by faithful members.
The biggest thing standing in the Mormon Church’s way this time is the difference of venue. While the 1998 fight was in the form of a ballot initiative, this time it is the lawmakers themselves who are taking the initiative under the encouragement of Governor Abercrombie to change the law.
**Follow author Eric Ethington on Twitter! @EricEthington