Editorials Berate Mormons for Anti-Gay Activism

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday December 2, 2008

In the days following voter approval of California's Proposition 8, the amendment to the state constitution that revokes what had been an existing right for gay and lesbian families to marry, opponents took note, and took umbrage, to the active role that the Mormon church had played in the amendment's promotion and eventual passage.

Referring to the Mormon church's leadership having instructed its membership to support the amendment financially and through volunteerism, and focusing on the contribution of an estimated $20 million by Mormons nationwide to market the amendment, opponents wondered aloud whether the Mormon church had crossed the line between church and state and should have its tax-exempt status revoked.

Now, another question has surfaced regarding the involvement of the Mormon church in the marketing of Proposition 8: whether the church realized that by becoming so deeply immersed in a secular, political struggle involving civil rights, that it would invite the sort of rough political discourse that such struggles often involve.

Pro-Proposition 8 groups--many of them conservative religious organizations--have attacked gay and lesbian demonstrators, bloggers, and others, claiming that the anti-Proposition 8 side are anti-Christian. Names have been called ("bigot" is a favorite on both sides), and some pro-Proposition 8 bloggers have taunted Prop. 8 critics for targeting the Mormons, inviting them to attack adherents of the Islamic faith, with the implication being that Islamic devotees are prone to violence and will answer such criticisms with terrorist acts. (Similar taunts invite critics to aim their commentary at urban black males, a reference to the 70 percent of black voters who supported the amendment.)

Indeed, as an editorial at Greenvilleonline asks, "Why the Mormons?"

After all, other denominations also supported the amendment, such the Baptists and other evangelical Christian churches, as did conservative branches of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church.

But the Mormon church's financial investment was so large and so prominent that the church inevitably came in for scrutiny and criticism.

Said the Greenvilleonline article, "Recently gay-rights activist Dan Savage gave CNN a simple explanation: 'Part of the democratic process is if you throw a punch, you're going to have a punch thrown back.'"

The article allowed, "Mormon leaders should have anticipated blowback after they directed all of their California congregations to get involved in the 'Yes on 8' campaign.

"Perhaps they didn't foresee just how outsized the response would be: Mormons made up the lion's share of volunteers and gave what the other side estimates is as much as $20 million.

"That's impressive involvement in a state where 770,000 Mormons are a mere 2 percent of the population," the article continued.

The Greenvilleonline article goes on to say that a TV ad produced by the No on 8 campaign still smarts for Mormons. The ad depicts two young Mormon missionaries invading the home of two women married to one another, snatching their rings off, and tearing up their marriage license.

"We have rights!" one woman cries.

In answer the Mormons laugh, "Not if we can help it!"

The ad sums up the sense by gay and lesbian families' sense that big government has intruded into their homes, as has a system that allows minority rights to be curtailed by majority vote.

For Mormons, however, the ad is insulting and implies that their faith is a violent one.

Conservative Christian groups, in their turn, have taken up the ad as proof that gays and lesbians are against Christianity, a virtual continuation of claims made to sell Prop. 8 that insisted that marriage equality would lead to a loss of religious freedoms.

Such claims were denounced as fear-mongering, but they found an audience, along with a claim that unless marriage equality were revoked, young children would be forced to learn about gay families in grade school, or even in kindergarten.

Conservative Christian groups have also attacked anti-Prop 8 groups and demonstrations as being violent, cherry-picking a few isolated instances in which events got out of control--instances that are exceedingly rare, given the 300 cities in which anti-Prop. 8 demonstrations have taken place, almost all of them peaceful in nature and without incident.

The most widely cited incident involved a Palm Springs candle light vigil that was intruded upon by an elderly woman carrying a Styrofoam cross. Witnesses reported that Phyllis Burgess pressed into the crowd, pushing through the thick of the assembly to get to a film crew that had videotaped her five days earlier, when Burgess carried a cross into a Gay Pride parade.

Several members of the crowd became enraged and took the Styrofoam cross away from Burgess, before throwing it to the ground and stomping it to pieces--even as the vigil's organizers called out for peace and calm.

The Greenvilleonline article summarized, "Although Prop 8 supporters characterized their campaign as 'pro-marriage,' say gay groups, it was actually hateful and 'anti-gay.'"

Noted the article, "Both sides, of course, have a First Amendment right to make these arguments and to attack one another with zeal.

"Mormons or members of any other religious group are free to enter the political fray and argue vigorously for what they believe.

"And supporters of gay rights are just as free to fight back.

However, the article cautions, "Before this clash escalates further, both sides should exercise caution and reconsider their battle plans going forward."

The article praised religious leaders, both Mormon and non-Mormon, who called for respectful discourse over the matter of the civil rights of gay and lesbian families.

Similarly, the article posited that both sides risk a public relations disaster by either throwing names at each other or, in the case of the Mormon-backed anti-marriage equality campaign, "use scare tactics about homosexuality in elementary schools and misrepresent the religious-liberty threat to churches."

Predicted the article, "The side that wins minds and hearts with robust but civil discourse is far more likely to prevail."

But not all of the problems encountered by the Mormon church are of a social nature; there are legal questions that have emerged, also, including a complaint against the church that the California state fair elections commission is now looking into.

In a Nov. 29 editorial, The New York Times expressed support for that investigation, noting, "Mormons were a major force behind the ballot measure.

"Individual church members contributed millions of dollars and acted as campaign foot soldiers," continued the editorial.

"The church itself also played an unusually large role. Michael R. Otterson, the managing director of public affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--the full name of the Mormons' church--said that while the church speaks out on other issues, like abortion, 'we don't get involved to the degree we did on this.'"

However, once again, it is the Mormons' financial support of the amendment that is being questioned. Reported the New York Times, "Fred Karger, the founder of a group called Californians Against Hate, who filed the complaint, contends that the Mormon Church provided significant contributions to the pro-Proposition 8 campaign that it did not report, as state law requires."

The article offered details. "The Fair Political Practices Commission of California is investigating, among other things, commercials, out-of-state phone banks and a Web site sponsored by the church."

Church officials claim that they stayed within the boundaries of the law; however, if the state's commission finds otherwise, the church may end up facing steep fines.

Noted the New York Times, "Churches, which risk their tax-exempt status if they endorse candidates, have more leeway in referendum campaigns.

"Still, when they enter the political fray, they have the same obligation to follow the rules that nonreligious groups do."

Readers, as well as writers, of newspapers are also making their voices heard on the issue. One of the more eloquent and succinct letters to the editor on the subject was published in The Boston Globe on Nov. 28, and was written by Boston resident Don Gorton, who observed, "It seems that Mormon supporters of California's Proposition 8 want it both ways."

Continued Gorton's letter, "On the one hand, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mounted a bare-knuckles political fight to ban same-sex marriage.

"The network of LDS wards and stakes coalesced into a tax-subsidized political machine, energetically fund-raising and mobilizing campaign volunteers to influence public policy."

The letter continued, "On the other hand, when faced with the criticism that is standard fare in politics, Mormon church spokespeople waved the bloody shirt of religious persecution, as if anyone were seeking to impinge upon the free exercise of religion."

Gorton allowed that, "The Mormons have every right to participate in the political process," but added that, "the LDS church overreaches when it politicks with the benefit of federal and state tax exemptions, then spurns accountability for an apostolically sanctioned crusade to enshrine sectarian beliefs in secular law."

Another writer in that same day's edition addressed the church's complaints of hostility from angry gay and lesbian citizens who felt that their family rights had been infringed upon.

Wrote Lexington resident Jonathan Dreyer, "Here's a clue for 'people of faith' who bemoan their unfriendly treatment by gay activists: Once you stop attacking their human rights, people get a lot friendlier."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.