About Mormons and Same-Sex Marriage

A rare Sunday post for me. This post has nothing to do with licensing, OER, or the other topics I usually write about here. If this topic doesn’t interest you, then as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”

Many people ask me, “Why are Mormons against same-sex marriage?” While I can’t speak on behalf of the whole church, as a reasonably educated person and a devout Mormon I can give an answer. I’ll document my answer along the way to show that I’m not making things up. I offer these answers in an attempt to contribute to a polite, civil dialogue on this topic – something that seems sorely lacking these days. I’m not going to try to convince you that the Mormon stance is the right one – I just hope to help you understand the Mormon stance more clearly.

First, a very brief doctrinal answer.

It is a core tenet of Mormon doctrine that only a man and a woman, married in a way that makes the marriage binding both in this life as well as the next, can receive all the blessings that God wants His children to receive on earth and in heaven. Neither a man nor a woman can receive these blessings as an individual; for over 150 years and for several generations we have believed that we can only receive these blessings jointly as husband and wife. So, when you hear a Mormon say they believe marriage should be between a man and a woman, it’s not because Mormons “hate gay people” as some have suggested. It’s because – doctrinally – our fundamental understanding of the best that both heaven and earth have to offer revolves around a man and a woman being married forever, and the eternal continuation of the family. (If you’d like to read a slightly longer statement on this doctrine, try this statement about the importance of the family to Mormons).

Now for a much lengthier legislative answer.

“That’s all well and good for Mormons to believe,” you may say, “but why try to legislatively force your beliefs on us?” This is exactly the right question to ask, and it is exactly why Mormons get involved in legislation. Let me explain.

The LDS Church (the official name of the church to which Mormons belong) formally and officially supports laws that protect the civil rights of individuals who are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender. For example, the church recently lent public support to an ordinance in Salt Lake City that prohibits bias in employment or housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity (see, e.g., this article in the Huffington Post). Without the church’s public support the proposed ordinance would almost surely have failed.

However, to the church and its members, marriage is not a purely civil affair. Marriage is a ceremony Mormons perform inside holy temples. If governments define marriage as being between any two people who want to get married, they may effectively legislate changes in core Mormon doctrine. A 2008 LDS Church news release provides some concrete examples of how this could happen:

Legalizing same-sex marriage will affect a wide spectrum of government activities and policies. Once a state government declares that same-sex unions are a civil right, those governments almost certainly will enforce a wide variety of other policies intended to ensure that there is no discrimination against same-sex couples. This may well place “church and state on a collision course.”

The prospect of same-sex marriage has already spawned legal collisions with the rights of free speech and of action based on religious beliefs. For example, advocates and government officials in certain states already are challenging the long-held right of religious adoption agencies to follow their religious beliefs and only place children in homes with both a mother and a father. As a result, Catholic Charities in Boston has stopped offering adoption services.

Other advocates of same-sex marriage are suggesting that tax exemptions and benefits be withdrawn from any religious organization that does not embrace same-sex unions. Public accommodation laws are already being used as leverage in an attempt to force religious organizations to allow marriage celebrations or receptions in religious facilities that are otherwise open to the public. Accrediting organizations in some instances are asserting pressure on religious schools and universities to provide married housing for same-sex couples. Student religious organizations are being told by some universities that they may lose their campus recognition and benefits if they exclude same-sex couples from club membership.

Many of these examples have already become the legal reality in several nations of the European Union, and the European Parliament has recommended that laws guaranteeing and protecting the rights of same-sex couples be made uniform across the EU. Thus, if same-sex marriage becomes a recognized civil right, there will be substantial conflicts with religious freedom. And in some important areas, religious freedom may be diminished.

In other words, while the effect may be indirect, legislatively defining marriage as being between any two people could quickly translate into limits on the freedom of Mormons to practice their beliefs, both in their churches and in their affiliated organizations (like Brigham Young University).

So the question may be asked in return, “Supporting gay marriage is fine for you to do, but why try to legislatively force your beliefs on us?” I believe this is the reason Mormons get involved in legislative efforts. If legislators take a thoughtless path to legalizing same-sex marriage, their foolhardiness will almost certainly result in broad contractions of our First Amendment rights, which up until now have forbidden Congress from making laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion. Given Congress’ recent willingness to strip away citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights (which should protect us from things like warrantless wiretapping), the possibility of substantive restrictions on freedom of religion feels very legitimate and very frightening.

The recent Salt Lake City ordinance was a good example of thoughtful, carefully constructed language. Quoting again from the HuffPo article:

Church support for the ordinances is due in part to the way the legislation was drafted to protect those rights. Exceptions in the legislation allow churches to maintain, without penalty, religious principles and religion-based codes of conduct or rules.

“In drafting these ordinances, the city has granted commonsense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations,” Otterson said Tuesday.

Previous Utah legislation that sought statewide protections for the gay community did not contain those exceptions.

And although this was the church’s first public endorsement of specific legislation, it is not the first time the church has voiced support for some gay rights. In August 2008 the church issued a statement saying it supports gay rights related to hospitalization, medical care, employment, housing or probate as long as they “do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.”

Supporters of same-sex marriage are very keen to protect what they see as their constitutional rights. Mormons and other people of faith are very keen to protect what we see as our constitutional rights. These two desires appear to be in conflict. However, when people listen to each other and work together, both groups can simultaneously enjoy their constitutional rights without infringing on the rights of the others, as the Salt Lake City example shows.

I hope this very brief explanation clarifies the two primary reasons Mormons currently resist attempts to redefine marriage. Mormons as individuals and the Church as an organization are open to supporting legislation that protects their rights – we just need more of this carefully crafted legislation to support. Consequently, I firmly believe that there is a path through this discourse that respects the views and beliefs of all parties. I just hope our nation is patient, kind, civil, understanding, thoughtful, and careful enough to find it.

Your comments are welcome as long as they stay polite and civil.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • The meat of your legal argument seems to be in the third para of your first quote: “Other advocates … membership.”

    All but one of those examples seem to me NOT to limit religious freedom, but rather to offer a choice: if you want state or organizational support (tax exemptions, accreditation, benefits) then you can’t engage in what the state or other organization sees as unjustifiable discrimination. If you are willing to give up that support, there is nothing stopping you from doing things according to your principles.

    The only one that stands out to me is this:

    “Public accommodation laws are already being used as leverage in an attempt to force religious organizations to allow marriage celebrations or receptions in religious facilities that are otherwise open to the public.”

    Does this mean forcing organizations to allow SAME-SEX marriages in, etc; or forcing organizations to allow marriages in facilities that are NOT otherwise open to the public? Either way, this seems different — the only alternative it leaves is “close the facility and conduct no marriages”. Refusing tax breaks, accreditation or campus benefits will not ipso facto put an end to the activity in question, but rather mean seeking other avenues of support.

    As someone who does not share your faith or your opposition (?) to gay marriage, I support those measures which I believe give your church a real choice, a way to live as you choose by giving up only some material benefit or support (such as tax breaks).

  • Bill, I think your notion of “unjustifiable discrimination” is extremely important. If the government can dictate to churches who should be permitted to marry, can the government also dictate who churches must permit to be baptized? Can they dictate who churches must permit to take communion? Can they dictate who churches are (not) allowed to excommunicate? I think any government or organizational action against a church (whether it is punishing a church by revoking its tax status or denying it accreditation) because the government or organization doesn’t agree with church doctrine is an extremely frightening and slippery slope. Whether direct or indirect, for all practical purposes these actions would constitute a historic contraction of religious freedom.

    I do not oppose same-sex marriage as long as the legislative changes that grant that permission explicitly protect the rights of churches and their members to continue to practice their beliefs without legal retribution.

  • There is a crucial asymmetry here. Gays suffer actual harm from a marriage ban, whereas LDS are subject only to possible harm. US constitutional law normally gives weight only to the first. You have offered no concrete example of actual loss to First Amendment rights of LDS members or church, leaving only strawman and fear. And I should know, having (as a gay man myself) traded too often in both throughout the Prop 8 odyssey.

  • Thank you for this article. Speaking as someone who does share your faith and who has thought long and hard about the issues surrounding same-sex marriage, the ideas presented here have shed some valuable light on the debate.

    It is extremely important that opponents of same-sex marriage frame their argument in terms of the free exercise of religion, as stated in the First Amendment. As I observed the Prop 8 trial in California over these past few months, I noticed that much of the evidence and testimony brought forth by the “YES on 8” side was focused on the possible negative social effects that legalized same-sex marriage could create. Although there may be something to this, I believe that the argument you make here is much stronger. As you so eloquently point out, it’s not a “purely civil affair.”

    P.S. I hate to get picky, but if you’re going to say “the official name of the church to which Mormons belong” you might as well use the official name (i.e. not simply “LDS Church”). You leave out the most important part of the name when you abbreviate it like that. 😉

  • If gay marriage is endorsed by the state, the state cannot discriminate against gay marriage in any way. How could gay sex be kept out of my kids’ school curriculum if the state holds gay marriage to the same level as traditional marriage? How could adoption services give higher consideration to traditional versus gay couples?

    • Simple thinker, I guess you are going to have to raise children NOT to be simple thinkers. Free agency demands more from us than insularity:

      “Kids, there are saints out still lost. They must choose their own way, and we must choose ours. Be among them, but not of them.” Teach your children what gays had to learn the hard way: the Truth shall set you free, not the closet.

  • Very nice post. Thank you for articulating our general position in such a kind manner.


  • An interesting post, relevant to me here in Australia as the issue has come up in our federal election. Our major parties also appose marriage of same sex couples, but none have attempted to rationally explain why.

    I’m not a religious person, but can appreciate the importance of belief, tradition, culture and ceremony. Your proposed seperation of church and state seems reasonable, but at what point does it become reasonable for the state (a democratically representative one) to challenge the discriminate beliefs of a church? If a church was racially discriminate in its practices, would a challenge be appropriate? History has a few examples, so I’d be interested to see reflection on the interpretations and beliefs of doctrine relative to the values of a wider societal context and point in time, at some point.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Dave.

  • David,

    I look at the ban as not only being discriminatory against same-sex couples, but also against the religious freedom of many religious faiths that do recognize same-sex unions. For example, I was raised in a Reform Jewish congregation. Reform Judaism allows Rabbis to perform same-sex marriages. When a government steps in and decides which of the marriages a Rabbi officiates at are legitimate in the states eyes, is the state not stepping on the toes of Reform Judaism?

    As well, the state cannot legally order any religious organization or member of the clergy to perform any marriage that would go against their faith. A Catholic priest cannot be forced to perform a wedding for a divorced couple. A Rabbi cannot be forced to perform a wedding for an interfaith couple. And no member of the clergy in Canada (where same-sex marriage has been legal for several years) has ever been forced to perform a wedding for a same-sex couple.

    Marriage isn’t just about the ceremony and the name. It’s about being able to make health care decision when one of you is very ill. It’s about property rights, inheritance rights, immigration rights, etc. It’s about not having to try to figure out what states you’ll travel through on your vacation because the laws are different for you than they are for other couples.

    And the fight for same-sex marriage is also about the right for same-sex couples who have been together for 40 years to be treated with more respect and acceptance than heterosexual couples who marry three or four times and think their vows mean “until times get tough or I find someone better”.

  • DanielW

    This was excellent. I am a member of the lds church and I have been searching for a reason why many members are opposed. I understand that much of the opposition is on moral ground. But that doesn’t have legal weight. But constitutional rights do. I think a more open discussion on this point of view would be beneficial for members of all creed, faith, and belief. Thank you.

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