What did the Church actually say about the Respect for Marriage Act?

I was going to post something on the Church’s statement on the Respect for Marriage Act, and then I saw that Public Square had already written what I was going to write, and done it much better than what I would have written, so why produce an inferior product?

Please read this:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this week an “Official Statement on the United States Congress Respect for Marriage Act,” which (1) affirmed its teaching on marriage and the family, (2) expressed gratitude that religious liberty was being protected in new federal legislation on same-sex marriage, and (3) affirmed that such balanced cooperation over otherwise strongly contested rights was “the way forward” on these kinds of difficult matters.  

The statement ended, “As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding.”

To read the actual statement, you might come away thinking the Church was wanting to affirm its commitment to its classic teachings on the family, hail a willingness among bipartisan legislators to protect religious liberty, and raise its voice on behalf of peaceful cooperation between differences.

But a very different message emerged in reporting and public commentary on the four-sentence statement.

“A historic shift is underway!” Rather than highlighting the Church’s public affirmation of its long-standing efforts to defend covenant marriage—by, in this case, protecting religious freedom alongside LGBT+ legislation—headline articles all across the nation proclaimed that the Church “voices support for same-sex marriage law.”

Bryan Pietsch writing for the Washington Post, called the church statement “a marked shift from decades of attacks on LGBTQ rights” and “perhaps the clearest declaration of support yet on same-sex marriage from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

What’s really going on? Given well over a century of consistent statements about the doctrine on the family—and despite ongoing insistence up to this very week’s statement that church teaching “related to marriage between a man and a woman … will remain unchanged,” the conversation this week has left many people confused. 

That’s not because the church statement was unclear, however. It’s because reporting about the statement was clearly intended to send another message outlined above. Despite these consistent statements and clarifications from the Church, scholars and journalists alike insist that something else is afoot: a historic shifting of attitude and teaching.  

But now the honest question—do they really believe that? Amidst all the professed excitement over, “Oh look, the Latter-day Saints are finally coming around,” do these scholars and journalists really believe they are witnessing the minute, incremental shifting in teachings from the Church of Jesus Christ?

We think not. Alternatively, could we be witnessing journalists and scholars firmly committed to a particular view of marriage, sexuality, and family—and doing their best to use their craft to advance those cherished views even in their reporting about something that contradicts them?  

It goes without saying that the national landscape has shifted considerably on this topic—with it increasingly taken for granted, even among people of faith, that same-sex marriage should be legal. Has the Church likewise “caved in”—some have wondered—and is this statement essentially conceding the issue? 

Not in the way these activist journalists and scholars are insisting. For instance, nowhere in the Church’s statement do you see an endorsement of gay marriage as a positive and good thing. Instead, the expressed encouragement of bipartisan legislation seems reflective of the wisdom to navigate the national landscape where the legality of same-sex marriage is no longer an issue—but religious freedom very much is. 

A careful reading of the church statement also does not imply they are expressing support for this exact legislation. It seems far more accurate to conclude they are endorsing the principles and approach embodied in the law (which, among other things, gives room for other ideas to be added to improve the legislation). 

Those principles are likewise consistent with the work the Church has been doing for nearly a decade on this issue. As Utah State scholar Patrick Mason said about the recent statement, “This seems entirely consistent with what they’ve been doing since 2015” (not to mention, we would add, the many years before when it comes to the importance of religious freedom and the doctrine on the family).  

To expand on Mason’s point, the Church’s approach on the national level is consistent with their work on the 2014 Salt Lake City nondiscrimination ordinance, which was announced in a collaborative fashion with quite a bit of fanfare. At that time (8 years ago), the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ signaled very clearly that this reflected the general principles they would favor going forward. That continued with their more recent work supporting similar legislation in Arizona and their support for the proposed federal legislation known as Fairness for All.

When you compare these prior statements with this more recent statement, you find consistent principles coupled with a desire for compromise and working across sharp ideological divides where agreement can be found.

In short, this is no doctrinal earthquake. What has changed starting in 2014 is not any teaching but rather the point of emphasis. (Although Petrey’s quotes have clearly been used—like his other writings—to advance a narrative of fundamental liberalization underway, in fairness to him, he also clarified in the Tribune interview that the shift most apparent was a pivoting away from opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage to protecting religious freedom—reflecting in this kind of a compromise that reflects a “break with other members of the religious right.”)

So, please go read the rest of the piece at Public Square which is, as I say, quite well done.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

2 thoughts on “What did the Church actually say about the Respect for Marriage Act?

  1. The church communicates clearly and precisely, and does so in a PR way that ends up allowing nearly everyone to be happy without causing confrontation.

    Thus they said it’s still our doctrine that marriage is between a man and woman, and that religious liberty should be protected while creating laws that protect the rights of LGBTQ.

    What constitutes a right of an lgbtq was never discussed in so that leaves a lot of assumptions a mile wide. What constitutes religious liberty was never discussed, so that also leaves mile wide assumptions.

    But the church is very clear they are supportive of rights and liberty, without listing what those rights are, because the game of listing rights is necessarily limited and restrictive on liberty.

    I both respect PR statements like this for the conciliatory approach to contentious issues and I get a little annoyed that vagueries are intentionally left in place to allow people to believe what they want to believe.

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