The Public Square Segregated

I read and then replied to some comments on somebody’s note on Facebook regarding the LDS Church’s involvement in the Proposition 8 campaign. I feel it is worthwhile to share that discussion with a broader audience. Here’s how it went:

Brian wrote:

I do not, however, agree that the Mormon church played only a minor role in the passing of Prop 8. While it’s true that the LDS church did not donate money directly, they pretty much rallied up any member who could to donate both time and money to the cause. They held firesides and commissioned their members to do whatever they could to assist in the passing of Prop 8. Many members donated only because it was a “commandment” from the prophet. The quorum of the 12 even personally called a few rich members of the church and told them it was their “priesthood obligation” to donate money to the cause.

The church itself was involved in virtually every way. It’s BECAUSE of what the leaders had been doing, and how they were pushing their members to donate, how they egged people in Utah to donate money to support a ballot in a state that they didn’t live in, and how they made the entire church body feel like it was a commandment to support Prop 8, that people are so incredibly upset.

Brian also quoted his friend Rob as saying:

I am disgusted with the LDS Church. In light of their blatant disregard for the separation of church and state… I wish I could take BYU off my resume.

To have had ANY association with the LDS Church or its educational institutions is now an embarrassment.

My reply:

Brian,
I’m still baffled by what the problem with the church supporting prop 8 is supposed to be. Members did not donate “only because it was a ‘commandment’ from the prophet.” Mormons have brains, they think for themselves, and they spend their money how they want and vote how they want. They supported proposition 8 because they agreed with it. If you read the letter that the church’s leaders used in encouraging the measure ( http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/california-and-same-sex-marriage ) it’s clear that it falls quite short of being a “commandment.”

I live in Utah and saw how the California residents in my area mobilized to support proposition 8. There was no compulsion, no “egging on.” Non-Californians were told not to get involved, though of course some still did anyway. Mormons are just good at making things happen, and they are willing to put their money where their mouth (and heart) is. Is that against the law somehow?

To Rob: I’m sorry that you are ashamed of your association with BYU because of the church’s supposed “blatant disregard for the separation of church and state.” Perhaps you should have paid better attention in your American Heritage class, because you are forgetting some key points about the meaning of the First Amendment. In particular, there is no prohibition of religiously-minded people participating in public debate. Both sides of the Prop 8 debate are founded on moral value judgments. Just because Yes on 8 people’s value judgments were informed by their religious beliefs does not make their value judgments less valid than those whose views were not religiously-founded. Were the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts to promote blacks’ civil rights invalid because he was a Baptist minister? Where do we draw the line between Dr. King taking one stand and the LDS church taking another? It seems that the only line is an arbitrary one based on whether those stands coincide with your particular political views or not.

Indeed, this arbitrary and conveniently agenda-promoting distinction between some religious people supporting one cause and others another strikes me as a profound injustice. Feel free to disagree with whether Proposition 8 was a good idea or not. But please do not vent your disappointment at its passing by claiming that prop 8’s proponents did not deserve to participate in the public debate simply because they are religious people and organizations. To segregate the public square into arbitrary “approved” and “unapproved” segments—especially when these labels are little more than code for the more typical terms “us” and “them”—is not appropriate and does our society a great disservice. In the end we let voters evaluate a measure based on the various arguments put forth for and against, but there is not and there should not be a restriction on who can make those arguments.

For anybody who has lingering doubts on this issue, please read my posting of a speech entitled “Religious Values and Public Policy” which discusses these matters in greater detail.

4 thoughts on “The Public Square Segregated

  1. Susanna

    I think one of the problems people have is the churches tax exempt status. They earn it somewhat by NOT getting involved in politics. By encouraging members to vote a certain way and to be involved politically in a certain way…it makes people question that status.

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  2. Mishi

    Being the tax guru that I proport to be, I’d like to point out that the tax-exempt requirements restrict the amount of political & lobbying activities that a tax-exempt organizations can participate in http://web.archive.org/web/20080928171813/http://www.irs.gov/charities/charitable/article/0,,id=96099,00.html , but does not complete inhibit their participation. I understand that 501(c)(3) orgs are not allowed to support specific candidates, but they can do a certain amount of lobbying and if you look at the size of the LDS church and its activities compared to the amount of lobbying done for Prop 8 it is inconsequential. I do not doubt that an organization the size of the LDS church has many legal and tax experts who make sure that the church wouldn’t do something to blow its tax-exempt status

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  3. Maria

    Josh, you’re so good at this rhetoric business. While I was reading your rebuttal, scriptures for which I do not have references at present were floating through my mind about how men are free to choose for themselves, but they cannot choose unless they are enticed one way or the other.

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  4. Josh

    Sue: I suppose it makes sense that the tax-exemption could cause some resentment, as it might seem like an unfair advantage in political situations. For practical purposes, though, the church’s tax-exempt status was irrelevant, since the church itself did not accept contributions for the campaign. There would have been some expenditures for the preservingmarriage.org website, but for the most part everything was done using existing personnel and infrastructure.

    At any rate, some organizations collaborating with the “No” campaign were likewise tax-exempt. For example, the Courage Campaign, who ran the lovely ad where Mormon missionaries invade someone’s home and tear up their marriage license, has this notice on their website: “The Courage Campaign is a tax-exempt organization registered under Sec. 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. Contributions to the Courage Campaign are not tax deductible for income tax purposes. The Courage Campaign does not make contributions to or expressly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates for public office.”

    Sounds like the church, except that tithing contributions _are_ tax deductible — but little or no tithing money was used for the campaign, as discussed above. (That 11 million dollars or whatever that people credit to Mormon donors all got funneled through the not-tax-exempt Protect Marriage Coalition, not the church.) Anyway, as far as the law goes, I’m sure the church was OK. We’ve been supporting occasional ballot measures for many years, and only now when we seem to have been a major force in the outcome of this one do people start to complain. But like I said, I can see how it would seem that the church has an unfair advantage. Overall, though, I think it all boils down to the First Amendment: was the church not acting in its religious mission by trying to defend something it considers sacred and vital for society? Then its actions were part of the “free exercise [of religion]” and ought not be interfered with.

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