The Mormon Newsroom has posted a letter from the First Presidency to area and local leaders. This is unusual: generally letters from the First Presidency are read to members over the pulpit in sacrament meeting, where you hear it once (if you’re lucky) but do not get access to the written text for study or review. And the first line of the letter makes it quite clear what prompted the letter: “Enclosed is a statement by the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in response to the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in the United States.” [See Obergefell v. Hodges opinions.] The attached statement is to be read to the membership on Sunday (but not in sacrament meeting). The letter anticipates some discussion following the reading of the statement.
The eight-paragraph statement restates the Church’s position against gay marriage and in favor of “marriage between a man and a woman,” religious freedom, God’s moral law, and treating all people “with kindness and civility.” There are lots of general statements using general terms that could mean different things to different readers — the kind of bloated, unfocused bureaucratic writing that would drive your English teacher nuts. There is nothing in the statement that directly addresses the problem of a local leader initiating formal or informal disciplinary action against members who express views about gay marriage that the bishop finds objectionable.
That omission is disappointing, given earlier public statements suggesting that sort of thing wouldn’t happen (even though it is happening). In a Salt Lake Tribune story from March 2015, Elder Christofferson is asked whether LDS members can express public support for same-sex marriage “without the threat of losing their church membership or temple privileges.” He is quoted as responding:
We have individual members in the church with a variety of different opinions, beliefs and positions on these issues and other issues. … In our view, it doesn’t really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders — if that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.
The closest the new statement comes to addressing that question is this short paragraph:
The Church insists on its leaders’ and members’ right to express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family, and morality free from retaliation or retribution. The Church is also entitled to maintain its standards of moral conduct and good standing for members.
I think the first sentence is claiming a right for members to make public statements against gay marriage without retaliation from the government, employers, or individuals who disagree. I think the second sentence is reserving the right of the Church to retaliate (through formal or informal church discipline) against members who make public statements in favor of gay marriage. If that Orwellian twist is not what the statement is intended to convey about your “right to express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family, and morality,” someone should clarify the statement.
Apart from “restat[ing] and reaffirm[ing] the doctrinal foundation of Church teachings on morality, marriage, and the family” and apparently inviting polarizing discussions (if not outright arguments) on the subject of gay marriage in wards across the country in the special meeting where the letter and statement will be presented, is there anything in particular the statement is intended to accomplish? What specifically does it ask us to do or not do? I found only two specific directives. (1) “Church officers will not employ their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex, and the Church does not permit its meetinghouses or other properties to be used for ceremonies, receptions, or other activities associated with same-sex marriages.” And: (2) “The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility — even when we disagree. We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully.”
Now, about those discussions. A Q&A script is included with the materials sent to local leaders. The most interesting response is to the question, “What if I have reservations of my own regarding the Church’s position on this subject?” The short response is a direct quote from Handbook 2, section 21.1.24, as follows (ellipses in original):
Members who … have doctrinal questions should make a diligent effort, including earnest prayer and scripture study, to find solutions and answers themselves. Church members are encouraged to seek guidance from the Holy Ghost to help them in their personal lives and in family and Church responsibilities.
If members still need help, they should counsel first with their bishop. If necessary, he may refer them to the stake president. … Stake presidents who need clarification about doctrinal or other Church matters may write in behalf of their members to the First Presidency.
And here is a legal question indirectly raised by the letter. What if a Mormon bishop, despite directives to contrary, decides to perform a same-sex wedding? Given that ecclesiastical officials have power delegated by the state to perform marriages, and given that same-sex marriages are now (or shortly will be) recognized as legal by all states, I believe the marriage would be recognized as valid by the state. The careful wording in the statement on this particular point suggests LDS leaders are aware of this possibility: “Church officers will not employ their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex.” Will not, not cannot. Let’s hope senior leaders do not overreact when such an event comes to pass.
Let me wind up by emphasizing the positive aspects of the statement: it has been published so all members can read and ponder the counsel given. It reminds members to “treat all people with kindness and civility.” We should not need such a reminder, but it will be helpful to keep in mind over the coming weeks.