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.
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.”
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.’ ”
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.)