November 15, 2013 at 6:41 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Reid stirs controversy with remarks on ‘changing’ Mormon Church
Harry Reid's remarks that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have inspired controversy (photo from wikimedia by Joe Ravi).

Harry Reid’s remarks that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is changing on LGBT rights have inspired controversy. (photo from wikimedia by Joe Ravi)

Remarks from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week that Mormons are changing their views on the issue of gay rights has inspired a stark reaction from the church.

During a reporter roundtable in his office prior to the final vote in the Senate on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Reid asserted the church is changing when asked by the Washington Blade how he reconciles his faith with his support for gay rights.

“When I attend church here in Washington, D.C., I bet more people agree with me than disagree with me, and so the church is changing, and that’s good,” Reid said.

Although his religion stipulates that homosexuality is against God’s law, Reid, the highest-ranking Mormon in the federal government, has been a prominent supporter of LGBT rights.

He was critical of his church’s involvement in the effort to pass California’s Proposition 8 in 2008; he endorsed the National Equality March in 2009, has championed ENDA and supports same-sex marriage.

The day after the Blade published the article about the roundtable with reporters, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement responding to Reid’s comments, saying that although the church has no position ENDA, it remains opposed to same-sex marriage.

“On the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), the Church has not taken a position,” the statement says. “On the question of same-sex marriage, the Church has been consistent in its support of traditional marriage while teaching that all people should be treated with kindness and understanding. If it is being suggested that the Church’s doctrine on this matter is changing, that is incorrect.”

The statement continues, “Marriage between a man and a woman is central to God’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. As such, traditional marriage is a foundational doctrine and cannot change.”

LGBT advocates working to change the Mormon Church acknowledged that while members may have evolving views on gay rights, church doctrine and policies haven’t made similar progress.

John Gustav-Wrathall, senior vice president of the LGBT Mormon group Affirmation, said Reid is right that members of the church are becoming more accepting of LGBT people and this acceptance includes support for ENDA and, in some cases, marriage equality.

“But the church leadership is maintaining that the doctrinal position of the church with relation to same-sex sexuality have not changed and are not going to change,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “And that certainly seems to be true, we don’t see any doctrinal evolution taking place at that level.”

Spencer Clark, executive director of Mormons for Equality, said as someone who lived in Reid’s D.C. congregation for five years, he concurs with the majority leader’s remarks.

“If you took a poll among Latter-day Saints locally, there would be a lot — if not majority — support of equal civil rights for LGBT individuals,” Clark said. “This is not to say that political sentiments in D.C. are representative of Mormons everywhere, but it demonstrates that there is a growing diversity of opinion among Mormons in regard to LGBT issues, and certainly a greater acceptance of them in our communities.”

After receiving substantial criticism for taking a lead role in passing Prop 8, the Mormon Church changed its tune on its public messaging on LGBT rights.

In 2009, the church endorsed an ordinance protecting gay people against discrimination in Salt Lake City. Moreover, although individual Mormons at a local level were involved in stopping the passage of marriage equality in Maryland, the church itself stayed out in 2012 when marriage equality came to the ballot in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Maine.

In terms of ENDA, the Mormon Church doesn’t oppose the bill, unlike other religious groups. While the Mormon Church is neutral, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter to U.S. senators opposing ENDA. Among other reasons, the conference said the legislation threatened religious liberty — despite the religious exemption in the bill.

However, the Mormon Church was engaged this year in attempting to stop the legalization of same-sex marriage. It joined with other religious groups in filing briefs before the Supreme Court in favor of Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. According to a report in Mother Jones, the church issued letters to followers in Hawaii reiterating the church’s position against same-sex marriage. One letter was sent by church leadership in Salt Lake City; another came from within the Hawaii church hierarchy.

Gustav-Wrathall nonetheless said an evolution is taking place among church members because Mormon parents of LGBT children are seeing their kids coming out more widely amid greater LGBT acceptance, which is continuing to drive discussion at all levels.

“They don’t want their kids to be lonely or alone, and they see the anguish that their kids are going through and they want to see their kids fully accepted and loved within their congregations,” Gustav-Wrathall said. “They value their Mormon faith, and they want to see their kids stay true to that faith, and they’re worried that if the church has a very strong anti-gay position, then they don’t much future for their kids in the church, and that causes them a great deal of anguish.”

Clark said this discussion among members of the Mormon Church and growing acceptance among LGBT people will reach church leadership and “ultimately carry the day.”

“Whether or not official LDS doctrines ever change, it’s undeniable that … the actual people who come together to worship are changing,” Clark said. “And as they filter up into higher leadership over the coming decades, the institution will change too, just as it always has.”

As the New York Times noted last week, Mormon members of the U.S. Senate provided the crucial votes needed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. All but two of the chamber’s seven Mormon members voted for the bill.

In addition to Reid, Mormons who voted for the bill were Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). The two who voted against it were Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

It remains to be seen whether the bill will find the same support among Mormons in the House. Only one of the Mormons in that chamber co-sponsors the bill: Rep. Jim Matheson (R-Utah). The other nine include lawmakers with anti-LGBT records, such as Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho).

Gustav-Wrathall said he “absolutely” thinks the support that ENDA enjoyed among Mormons in the Senate is evidence of the change within members — at least on the issue of non-discrimination.

“I think in some ways Prop 8 actually may have moved things forward in those others areas because it created the impetus for discussion, and once people actually started talking about it, they realized, hey, we can support LGBT rights in at least these areas,” Gustav-Wrathall said.

The full remarks from Reid on Mormons evolving on gay rights follow:

I believe that I have rendered my church some pretty good service, and having members of the church recognize that they’re not all the same. I was stunned. I went to the national convention, and they asked me, “Would be willing to do an event for Mormon Democrats?” Ah, sure. I’ve been to things before where there was 14 people, whatever it is. I went down there. They have to turn people away. Lots and lots of people in North Carolina. I think they were proud of me for some of the stands I’ve taken.

For example, right in this room, I told one of the leaders of the Mormon Church, “Don’t do this. Stop this stuff in California. It’s nothing but trouble. It’s not going to work. You go back and tell everyone in Salt Lake what I’ve said because it’s not going to work. You’re not creating a good, positive guide for the church.” Example is the word, not guide.

And, you know, the Mormon Church is led by some wonderful men and women, but especially the men are old because it’s based like the Senate. A lot of it is on seniority. And there’s some young new church leaders, one of whom is an apostle. He’s what is called a stake president in San Francisco. He knows all this stuff. So, things are changing.

I hope they appreciate how I’ve helped. I’ve never — I don’t feel uncomfortable going to church and recognizing that in some places, not everyplace that I may think differently on social issues and other things than some. But, you take for example, when I attend church here in Washington, D.C., I bet more people agree with me than disagree with me, and so the church is changing, and that’s good.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Your opening paragraph calling the church’s statement a “stark reaction” to Reid’s comment that the church is changing is not a very insightful description of what happened. Neither the church’s PR people nor the authorities of the church they work for are stupid. They both know how to say the LDS church opposes civil protection for gays and lesbians. But they didn’t say this because it is not true. Reid did not say Mormon theology is changing, he said the “church” is changing. “Church” here can mean the attitudes of people in the church. I think the pr department and the authorities would both agree that the attitudes of people in the church are changing. A theological distinction between gay marriage and legal protection for gays in civil unions may make no sense to most people. But such a distinction is made by church authorities, and any disregard of that fact leads to misunderstanding of the church.

  • When the LDS Church lets its women speak you will see much bigger changes.

  • Women speak in church Tom. Where every you get your information from is pretty weak. Go to a service sometime or talk to missionaries in your area.

  • The church changes when the people are ready for the change.

  • “…although individual Mormons at a local level were involved in stopping the passage of marriage equality in Maryland, the church itself stayed out in 2012 when marriage equality came to the ballot in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Maine.”

    REALLY? – NO.

    “The Church” IS NOM. “The Church” IS involved. “The Church” seeks to fool the public by lying about its involvement and hiding behind another institution, but no one is fooled.

    No one is fooled.

    THIS is the Mormon Church.

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