Saints and Sinners

In Hawaii in 1996, leaders of the Mormon church petitioned the court to intervene in a lawsuit filed by three gay couples who claimed that their constitutional rights were violated when the state denied them marriage licenses.

In Alaska in 1988, the church contributed $500,000 to a campaign to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In California in 2000, the church contributed $1.1 million to pass Proposition 22, the ballot initiative that ushered into law the Defense of Marriage Act.

In 2008, after the California Supreme Court overturned the act, LDS leaders doubled down. The three-man First Presidency wrote a letter to be read “in sacrament meeting on June 29” in every Mormon temple in California, urging
Mormons to donate their time and money ensure the passage of Proposition 8, which would amend the California Constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Mormons complied.

Nadine Hansen, a lawyer from Cedar City, Utah, spent months cross-referencing Mormon directories and state contribution filings, then posting online the names
of Mormon donors to Protect Marriage, the group promoting Proposition 8.
(Some contributions were easy to find, like $1 million from Alan C. Ashton,
grandson of a former president of the Mormon church.)

“I documented the large donors, and they were more than 50 percent Mormon,” Hansen, who is a Mormon, told me.

Mormons also provided most of the volunteers for the Proposition 8 campaign.

The sect’s political subdivision of the country into wards and stakes was a ready-made structure for organizing volunteers. And because most Mormon men,

and many women, leave home at 19 for two years of proselytizing, they were prepared for the shoe-leather campaign required to pass the amendment.

Churches avoid federal taxes by filing for nonprofit 501C-3 status with the IRS, which prohibits political activity. In a talk sponsored by the progressive (Mormon) Sunstone Foundation, Hansen said canvassers were warned “when canvassing neighborhoods, not to go in twos, wear white shirts and ties, or do anything that would make us look like Mormons,” she said.

A memo obtained by The New York Times included explicit instructions: “No work will take place at the church, including no meeting there to hand out precinct
walking assignments so as to not even give the appearance of politicking at the church.”

LDS leaders also seemed to play by a different rulebook when disciplining members who disagreed with the church’s position on marriage equality.

When Mormons are excommunicated, it is normally for fornication, adultery, specific crimes, or openly challenging canonical teachings. Disciplinary procedures range from a conference with a bishop; to probation; to the loss of the “temple recommends” that allow Mormons to enter their sanctuaries; to disfellowship
and ultimately excommunication. Threats of excommunication for other transgressions are rare.

“In the ’90s,” Hansen said, she was summoned to a conference with her stake president after opining that the church’s Proclamation on Family Values appeared to be directed at gay people. She did not lose her temple recommend, but the response was a bellwether for where the church was headed.

In California, during the 2000 Proposition 22 fight, Hansen’s son Alan was placed on “secret probation” and banned from his temple for writing an editorial
in favor of marriage equality.

In Salt Lake City in 2006, Brigham Young University philosophy instructor Jeffery Neilsen was fired for writing an op-ed in The Salt Lake Tribune, questioning LDS support of traditional marriage.

When Peter Danzig, a member of the Orchestra at Temple Square, wrote a letter to the editor expressing his support for Nielsen, Danzig was suspended from the orchestra, then left the church rather than face excommunication.

Danzig was a highly visible example, a Temple Square auto-da-fé. By the time the Proposition 8 campaign began, Mormons knew where the red lines were drawn on dissent.

And it worked. What Mormons achieved in 2008 was remarkable. A denomination that represents 2 percent of the U.S. population had amended the constitution of the most diverse state in the nation.

There is a precedent for the California campaign. In 1979, as Virginia’s General Assembly prepared to vote on the Equal Rights Amendment, groups opposing
it began to find increasing out-of-state support.

It was in Virginia that Hansen — who is not gay, but believes in the public right to know where her church puts its money — began tracking contributions. She
confirmed that most out-of-state donors to the anti-ERA campaign in Virginia were Mormon.

In 1979, as in 2008, the three-man First Presidency wrote a formal letter, this time urging Mormons to join the fight against the ERA in Virginia. One of the signatories was an immigrant from Mexico named Marion G. Romney — cousin to George Romney, the governor of Michigan and father of Mitt Romney.