Beliefs Culture Ethics Politics

Mormon apostle: Kim Davis was wrong not to issue same-sex marriage licenses

Dallin H. Oaks, a senior of member of the Mormon's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Dallin H. Oaks, a senior of member of the Mormon's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Dallin H. Oaks, a senior of member of the Mormons’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

SALT LAKE CITY — Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, cannot use her Christian faith as a justification for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, a high-ranking Mormon authority said Tuesday (Oct. 20).

Public officials “are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices,” LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks said in a speech in Sacramento, Calif. “A county clerk’s recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle.”

After a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the U.S., Davis declined to sign marriage licenses for gay couples — and went to jail at one point — even when a federal judge ordered her to do so.

Advocates on both sides of the gay-rights divide have weighed in on Davis’ actions, including many Mormons and other Christians defending the clerk, but The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been silent — until now.

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In a carefully worded address at the Second Annual Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference titled “The Boundary Between Church and State,” Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, argued for balance and good sense between religious freedoms and civil liberties.

“Believers should … acknowledge the validity of constitutional laws. Even where they have challenged laws or practices on constitutional grounds, once those laws or practices have been sustained by the highest available authority, believers should acknowledge their validity and submit to them.”

The LDS Church eventually heeded that principle when it abandoned plural marriage more than a century ago after the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in against the practice.

The Rev. Gregory Johnson, chairman of Standing Together, a consortium of Utah’s evangelical Christian churches, disagreed with the Mormon apostle — especially his opposition to Davis’ stance.

“Conscientious objection and religious exemptions are part of our country’s heritage,” Johnson said. “When fighting in wars or endorsing or participating in a marriage you think does not honor God’s design for marriage, such people have to be accommodated.”

Davis was being forced to affix her name to a document that legalized same-sex marriage, which she opposes, Johnson said. “Since there are plenty of other county clerks who were willing to do it, her personal conviction on this matter should be recognized.”

Johnson, who is on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals, worried about moving “so quickly in the area of limiting religious freedom, or not standing up for the First Amendment rights of a clerk in Kentucky.”

Christians need to be more patient, he said, lest they surrender too many religious rights.

For his part, Oaks called for a balancing of rights. Instead of a so-called “wall of separation between church and state,” for instance, he proposed “a curtain that defines boundaries but is not a barrier to the passage of light and love and mutual support from one side to another.”

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Believers and nonbelievers should not be adversaries, nor should there “belligerence between religion and government,” Oaks said in a release of his prepared speech. “These two realms should have a mutually supportive relationship.”

The senior apostle, second in line for the LDS Church’s presidency, suggested some general principles for all sides to follow along a “center path” that balances the rights and interests of church and state.

“First, parties with different views on the relationship between church and state should advocate and act with civility,” Oaks said. “We all lose when an atmosphere of anger or hostility or contention prevails. We all lose when we cannot debate public policies without resorting to boycotts, firings and intimidation of our adversaries.”

Next, he said, compromise should be the goal.

“On the big issues that divide adversaries on these issues, both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory,” Oaks advised. “For example, religionists should not seek a veto over all nondiscrimination laws that offend their religion, and the proponents of nondiscrimination should not seek a veto over all assertions of religious freedom.”

The apostle then pointed to Utah’s recently adopted law protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from housing and workplace discrimination while safeguarding some religious liberties.

“In a head-on conflict over individual free exercise and enforced nondiscrimination in housing and employment, for example, the Utah Legislature crafted a compromise position under the banner of ‘fairness for all,’ ” Oaks said. “It gave neither position all that it sought, but granted both positions benefits that probably could not have been obtained without the kind of balancing that is possible in the lawmaking branch.”

Finally, Oaks cautioned all parties to be wary of extremist views.

“Extreme voices polarize and create resentment and fear by emphasizing what is nonnegotiable and by suggesting that the desired outcome is to disable the adversary and achieve absolute victory,” he said. “Such outcomes are rarely attainable and never preferable to living together in mutual understanding and peace.”

Oaks said differences will always test pluralistic societies and that the key is learning to navigate them civilly.

“Differences on precious fundamentals are with us forever,” he said. “We must not let them disable our democracy or cripple our society. This does not anticipate that we will deny or abandon our differences, but that we will learn to live with those laws, institutions and persons who do not share them. We may have cultural differences, but we should not have ‘culture wars.’ ”

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Erika Munson, who co-founded Mormons Building Bridges, a group that seeks harmony between the LGBT and LDS communities, applauded Oaks’ speech as a model of balance, not just his point about Davis.

“I find it really encouraging,” she said, “that Elder Oaks is asking us to move away from an ‘us versus them’ mentality, particularly in Utah, where this mentality has existed for a long time.”

David Noyce contributed to this story.

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

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  • Mormon elders supporting discrimination against gays and ignoring the separation of church and state. Quel surprise!

    Thank you for reinforcing yet again why religious leadership is not synonymous with moral authority or understanding of our laws.

    Free exercise of religion is not license to attack others as Kim Davis did. The state cannot be compelled to act on the religious dictates of its functionaries. What conservative Christians these days call “religious freedom” is really just a euphemism for Christian privilege. Rights for me and not for thee.

  • The Rev. Gregory Johnson is incorrect. Kim Davis is not a conscientious objector. She could have been, but when she forced her staff to follow her lead and not issue marriage licences she gave up the ability to be considered anything but an obstructionist. Conscientious objection is an accommodation given to an individual, it does not allow them to force others to follow their beliefs. A conscientious objector in the military cannot then be commissioned as an officer and determine military strategy. Elected officials cannot, under any circumstances, violate the civil rights of the citizens they are elected to serve. She did that when she refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone in the county. In the beginning of this situation Davis should have applied for and should have been given an accommodation based on her beliefs, but it would have only affected her and not her office. Her office needs to do its job and serve the citizens of the county.

  • As the brother states, the case of Kim Davis in not in any reasonable sense a matter of religious freedom. She already has the freedom to believe whatever she wants to believe. Religious freedom does not include the right to hold public office and as such deny others their rights. Kim Davis has been exploited by the extremists and has been rode hard by the junior Fallwellites and hung up wet.

  • In law school I only had a B in Constitutional Law as I never could understand how 5 people out of 330 million get to impose their newly popular views on everyone else by redefining the definition of words and overturning centuries of past law and tossing the law made by election. Oaks is a good and smart man, but he should not judge Davis. What if 5 people on the SCOTUS decided that the LDS Church must perform gay weddings, or assist with suicide, or perform abortions, or must have openly gay clergy or women in the LDS priesthood? The definition of “marriage” was a union between a man and woman under common law, custom, and legal history, and in most states. SCOTUS changed the definition of the word. What if SCOTUS changes the definition of other words? Like the definition of equality or liberty or religion or citizen or person contrary to history or law? I am not clever enough to see the Davis situation so simply. I submit to bad law, but I hesitate to fault those who won’t.

  • No wonder you had only a B. If you were my student, you wouldn’t have even that.

    First, it wasn’t 5 judges. All but a handful of Federal judges agreed that the laws were unconstitutional. The five you are complaining about DID THEIR JOB, as defined by 200 years of American jurisprudence.

    second, it wasn’t the definition of marriage that was changed, but the definition of gay people. You might have gotten that if you ever left your church.

    Third, centuries of past law were not overturned, as heterosexuals can still marry as often and badly as they wish. Of course, divorce DID overturn the definition of marriage as indissoluble.

    fourth, of course, the freedom of religion in this country is very nearly absolute, so your “what if” is nonsense– based upon centuries of American jurisprudence.

    Fifth, you lost on the merits, so now you’re complaining about the process– with arguments that lost on the merits.

    Sixth– oh, never mind. You get an Z, not an F.

  • I think you might want to re-read this article (starting with the title) because based on your comment, you misunderstood it.

  • No. I got it right the first time. The Mormon leadership is full of effluence. They want to eke out and salvage forms of legalized discrimination under the pretense of compromise. Separation of church and state was attacked. They are more concerned over the feelings of those seeking to discriminate than upholding civil liberties. One step away from calling people opposed to anti gay discrimination “uppity”.

  • The “Mormon elder” quoted in the article understands United States laws very well, he was a state supreme court justice.

    I’m confused by your comment. It sounds like you’re saying this “Mormon elder” is wrong but it seems like you’re agreeing with him with the rest of your comment.

  • ThomasT, you are obviously attracted to myths. The notion that SCOTUS changed the definition of marriage is just one of those myths.

    The most significant thing about marriage is that it is a union of two adult human beings who love each other enough to want a recognized civil commitment to each other for life. Allowing both to be the same gender is a very minor tweak or expansion of the law that finally includes people who had been unfairly excluded for no legitimate reasons. It’s interesting that almost everyone who opposes this inclusion suffers from Gender Obsession Disorder.

  • Johnson, the evangelical Utahn, is wrong on the facts. Davis was offered a reasonable accomodation: have a deputy clerk sign the license. She refused that. Consider, for example, a high school that has one chief custodian and several assistant custodians. It is the policy of the school that the US flag be raised every morning. The chief custodian, however, is a Jehovah’s Witness and refuses to do this on the basis of his sincerely-held religious belief. The school says that’s fine, just have one of your assistants do it. Seems reasonable.** But he still refuses, saying that another custodian would still be acting under his authority, and it would be like the chief was raising the flag himself. Do you think that’s still reasonable?
    **The first part of this happened in real life: a JW custodian refused to raise the flag and was disciplined. He won his case.

  • I can believe it if he went to one of those wingnut welfare schools like Liberty Law School or Ave Maria School of Law. These places are churning out the Mat Stavers and whatnot. People who can’t for the life of them cough up a cogent Constitutional law argument. He is repeating their shrill screeds verbatim.

    Plus most state bar exams have enough various subjects that one can pass it while being entirely clueless about Con Law II areas.

    Its pretty clear ThomasT has no conception of judicial review, the 14th Amendment, or even basic facts of the matter. As all Federal Courts but two ruled against gay marriage bans when it crossed their courts. The two that ruled against it had very spurious reasons which did not get picked up in the SCOTUS arguments.

    If the anti-gay crowd was capable of articulating a rational and secular reason for gay marriage bans, they would not have lost in Court.

    Res Ipsa Loquitor. It speaks for itself. 🙂

  • What gives, RNS?

    Tom’s comment, as incompetent as it was, was removed. No violation of terms of service, his only comment, germane in an irrelevant sort of a way to the topic at hand.

    So what gives?

  • Ben, regarding RNS comment removals: I’m wondering if comments are immediately removed whenever someone clicks on “Report abuse,” and then are sometimes reinstated after RNS staff review. Or maybe a post’s author removes some comments, and is then overruled by RNS staff. The reason I’m wondering this is because I’ve had some comments removed, and then they magically reappear a day or two or three later!

  • A few days ago I posted a comment with some quotes illustrating that Louis Farrakhan is not quite an advocate of universal love and tolerance, despite his fawning portrayal by an RNS writer.

    The post was pretty quickly removed, then reinstated a day or so later. I’m inclined to agree with your theory that authors are getting posts removed, then being overruled by someone else.

  • I would disagree with Mr. Oaks. When Peter and John were faced with obeying the religious leaders of their day who commanded them to not preach about Jesus, they said in Acts 4:19, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight for us to obey you rather than God.”

    But I would recommend something to Mr. Oaks, who feels so free to criticize Mrs. Davis: You supposedly have the power to seal a couple for all eternity. Invite a gay couple to the temple and seal them. Lead by example.

  • Hi downtown dave, I think you miss the point of Elder Oaks’ comment. He’s addressing the fact that all of us occupy different positions or roles at different times in our lives. Peter and John were occupying the role of Apostle of Jesus Christ. In that capacity, it would behoove them to seek God’s approval, rather than the religious leaders’ of their day.

    Kim Davis, however, was establishing her religious beliefs while occupying the role and position of an agent of the state. If a person has a moral disparity in that situation, it’s the duty of the individual to separate him or herself from the position. A Christian tax payer in the days of Peter and John could not refuse to collect taxes simply because he opposed Roman rule. His choice is to collect the taxes or remove himself from the office. Such is the choice Kim Davis had.

  • I feel the article fails to address the core issue. Mr. Oaks fails to state that a Supreme Court decision is not law. The Kentucky Constitution and Kentucky Law both stipulate that marriage can only be between one man and one woman. The State Law also clearly states that same sex marriage is prohibited. Additionally there is now no Federal Law addressing this issue since DOMA was found by the Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. U.ntill the Constitution and the Law is changed, I can accurately state that Mrs. Davis was clearly just doing her job

  • It would appear that he thinks that the Supreme Court makes law……they do not…Legislatures make laws.

  • Our family left the LDS Church because the Church takes a compromised position on abortion. When any church cannot see that legal, and in fact real ‘personhood’ begins at fertilization- then that church will compromise on all moral questions. Elder Oaks speaks for his church and not God. When is the last time you heard of a church disciplining a member for murder by abortion. The LDS Church is pro-homosexual and pro-choice in a very clever ways. Churches should not choose lawyers to make policy supposedly for God unless the attorney (church official) repents of his corrupt and ungodly occupation. Elder Oaks is really hurting Mormon Christians and Christianity in general.