Prop 8: How we got here from there

This post is the first of several providing background information about the LDS church’s involvement in the Prop 8 campaign in California. The series will provide pertinent court case and appellate background information to readers interested in March’s Supreme Court hearing. More detailed timelines showing LDS involvement in same-sex marriage politics may be found here.

In late June, 2008, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a letter to all local priesthood leaders in California.  This letter, scheduled to be read over pulpits in Sacrament Meetings on June 29th, urged all members to do “do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time” with further instruction to come through priesthood leadership channels.  After several months of intense campaigning both in and out of chapels, the measure passed in California with a 52%-48% vote and California became the first state in the country to remove the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Within days of the election’s certification, lawsuits were filed by same-sex couples wishing to marry.  They argued that California’s newly revised constitution was in conflict with the rights guaranteed to all United States citizens under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A federal judge agreed with the argument, but the decision was stayed – not to be enforced – until the appellate process was completed.

On March 26th, these same-sex couples will have their final day in court as the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear their attorneys’ arguments.  Church attorney Von Keetch and his firm Kirton & McConkie, recently filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.  As the church’s involvement in the Prop 8 campaign was central to both the campaign and the original court case, it is appropriate now that we take a look at how we got to this stage in the game.

While it often appears that Mormon church involvement in California’s election seems to have sprung from nowhere, it is really the result of years of relationship-building and conferencing.  The church has a long history of weighing in on what it considers to be moral matters – usually gambling, marriage, or gender equality, and occasionally abortion.  By the time 2008 rolled around, a number of men experienced both in priesthood leadership roles and political action were prepared to take the helm against anything that threatened to destroy traditional families, as they put it.

In the mid-1990s, for example, Hawaii’s state legislature was considering whether or not to allow same-sex civil unions.  The LDS church made use of its strong connections and presence in Hawaii and set up a group called Hawaii’s Future Today which appeared to be independent, but which was taking direction from both Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City and from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.  For more information on LDS involvement in Hawaii, see this timeline.

As Hawaii’s civil union legislation went down to defeat, California State Senator William J. “Pete” Knight was gearing up to make sure California would not have to recognize same-sex unions, either.  Senator Knight’s Chief of Staff, Andy Pugno (who himself would later co-author Prop 8), contacted BYU professor Lynn Wardle about the possibility of Wardle testifying in California’s legislature. Wardle had already testified in Hawaii and was alternately testifying or providing guidance to other state legislatures and their committees about writing DOMA laws in their own states.

While church leaders didn’t want to fight a battle against same-sex marriage on two fronts (both Hawaii and California), they recognized several important facts about California:

1 – California is influential (“As California goes, so goes the nation”) – if same-sex marriage became legal in California, it would not be long before other states would recognize it as well, and Utah might be forced to join the throngs, too.

2 – California’s election system is ideal for influence-peddling.  Because it only takes a simple majority (50% +1) to change its constitution or its laws, it’s a prime target for voter-driven petitions.

3 – Compared to other states outside of the Intermountain West, California has a lot of Mormons, many of whom have the time, wealth and money to invest in a campaign.  Plus, there are a lot of Catholics in the state as well, and there were already strong ties between Catholics and Mormons on the issues of same-sex marriage.

So California Mormons became involved in what was then called the Proposition 22 campaign.  This proposition was similar to Prop 8 – it defined marriage in California as only between a man and a woman.  Wardle even worked with Pugno and Knight to determine whether it was better to us “a man and a woman” or “one man and one woman.”  At this turn-of-the-millennium time, Mormons across the country were working with state legislators to get DOMA provisions codified in state laws and constitutions, but California’s initiative process ensured Mormons would be trying to influence voters moreso than legislators here.  And sometimes it’s easier to sway voters than legislators, especially when emotional arguments can be made.

The Prop 22 “Knight Initiative” campaign in California was a prelude to Prop 8:  Leaders urging support of traditional marriage, members speaking up and out in Sacrament meetings and other lessons, quiet calls and invitations to view videos urging support of the initiative which wouldn’t change the constitution – just the state codes.  Unlike with Prop 8, California members helped collect signatures to get the Knight Initiative on the ballot in the first place and then continued campaigning all the way until election day in March 2000 when the initiative passed 61% to 39%.

As soon as the state’s laws were changed, traditional marriage supporters knew there could be problems, however.  Same-sex couples filed discrimination suits and the cases began working their way through California’s state court system.  If Prop 22 were declared unconstitutional, same-sex marriages would be allowed in California.  Traditional marriage supporters began trying to get a constitutional amendment which would have the same effect as Prop 22 onto the state ballot because if the provision were part of the constitution, it would, by definition, become constitutional. It took nearly eight years and 16 elections to succeed.

California’s highest court heard the Prop 22 case in March 2008, but did not announce its decision until May.  A stay on the judgment meant no legal same-sex marriages could be entered into until 5:00 p.m. June 16, 2008.  Between the time the judges heard the appeal of In re: Marriages, and the time the decision became effective, traditional marriage supporters had certified enough signatures to put Prop 8, a constitutional amendment denying same-sex marriages, on the November ballot. No matter what the state’s highest judges said, traditional marriage was going to be a constitutional issue.

In May 2008, unbeknownst to the general public and at the behest of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (a political action arm of the Catholic Church), San Francisco’s Archbishop George H. Niederauer, contacted his LDS friends in Salt Lake City – he’d recently been transferred from Utah to San Francisco.  In December 2008, he wrote about that first contact, saying he was told, “that leaders and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) had given their support to the campaign for Proposition 22 in the year 2000, and were already considering an involvement in connection with Proposition 8. Accordingly, I was asked to contact leaders of the LDS Church whom I had come to know during my eleven years as Bishop of Salt Lake City, to ask them to cooperate again, in this election cycle. I did write to them and they urged the members of their Church, especially those in California, to become involved.”

On June 29th, as San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade and celebration was going full force, about one week after it had been leaked to the internet, LDS Bishops were reading President Monson’s letter to congregations across the state. Mormons were now officially involved in the Prop 8 campaign.

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