Freedom for Me but Not for Thee: Marriage and Mormons in California

Article excerpt

THE NOVEMBER election results weren't exactly what the religious right was hoping for. Barack Obama, a man this group regards as a far-left extremist (and possibly a closet Muslim) won in an electoral landslide. Several of the movement's allies lost their seats in the House of Representatives and Senate.

The otherwise gloomy night did offer a few bright spots for Christian conservatives: California, Arizona, and Florida approved state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. In addition, Arkansas voters approved a ban on foster parenting and adoptions by unmarried partners, a move aimed mainly at same-sex couples.

The California result was something of a surprise. Polls taken prior to the election showed the same-sex marriage ban trailing. Analysts say a last-minute advertising blitz may have made the difference--along with an infusion of $20 million donated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Church officials summoned the faithful to get involved in the California battle in June. "Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and the formation of families is central to the Creator's plan for His children" church leaders asserted.

Individual Mormons answered the call and donated time and money to the effort. Add to this a grassroots organizing effort aimed at churches conducted by religious right groups and the Catholic hierarchy and you see the result: a rollback of civil rights for gays and lesbians in California.

Gay-rights advocates are understandably upset. From their perspective, a church based in Utah meddled in California politics, resulting in a loss of rights for a certain segment of the population.

Some are calling for the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the LDS church and possibly pull its tax exemption. While I understand the frustration many feel, this effort isn't likely to bear fruit. IRS rules ban nonprofit houses of worship from endorsing or opposing individual candidates in elections. Issue advocacy is generally protected.

A better avenue is to ask our courts some hard questions: Should a religious group have the right to engineer a scheme that takes away some people's rights? Does a church have the right to use the democratic process to write its pet theological notions into law?

Leaders of religious right groups crow that their efforts in blocking same-sex marriage are a triumph of democracy. Opponents might see it as democracy run amock. Democracy is a great thing, but it must exist within the framework of a set of rights that exist beyond the reach of the majority.

This is the purpose of our Constitution's Bill of Rights. The idea is that some freedoms are so essential that they are put beyond the majority's grasp. Our ability to exercise them depends on no vote, and no misguided vote can snatch them away.

In the Jim Crow South, the majority was more than happy to ban interracial marriage. Many states had laws banning the practice, and some ministers argued that these marriages were an offense to the Bible. Had the matter been put to a popular vote, it would have passed easily.

The Supreme Court struck down such laws in its Loving v. Virginia ruling of 1967. But if the majority supported such laws, shouldn't they be allowed to have them? Isn't that democracy in action?

Few Americans today would accept that argument. Yet if you ask leaders of the religious right to explain the difference between state bans on interracial marriage and bans on same-sex marriage, they hem and haw and eventually fall back on claims that the latter is "unnatural" or "unbiblical"

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The problem is, that's exactly what many people thought when Mildred and Richard Loving were found guilty of violating Virginia's ban on interracial marriage. …