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Mormons working to overturn Md. marriage law

Church denies direct role, but leaked email details efforts

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LDS Temple (photo from wikimedia by Joe Ravi)

Members of the Mormon Church in Maryland are working to overturn the state’s recently passed marriage equality law, according to an email obtained by the Washington Blade.

In the message dated March 29 sent to D.C. and Southern Maryland-area church members, the writer states that a coalition of inter-denominational Maryland churches has joined to place a referendum before voters in November on the marriage law before it goes into effect.

“We need to collect approximately 200,000 signatures by the end of May,” the email states. “We are looking for people to gather signatures within the LDS community.”

LDS refers to the church’s formal name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those involved with the effort have told the Blade the message isn’t an official message from church leadership either at the local level or from its headquarters in Salt Lake City, but is rather part of a local ad hoc effort to challenge Maryland’s marriage law.

The email says the “important effort” is being led by Martha Schaerr, an LDS member who’s organizing signature collection within Montgomery County and within the church. Another named organizer in the email is Teressa Wallace.

An informed source said the email was sent to the entire congregation in D.C. and Southern Maryland, which consists of between 500 and 1,500 church members and former members. According to the source, the author is Wallace, one of the named organizers in the email and wife of one of the junior pastors of the congregation.

Only 55,736 valid signatures are needed to force a ballot measure in Maryland. The stated goal of obtaining 200,000 signatures is likely an attempt to over deliver in case the validity of some signatures is challenged.

According to the email, church members interested in organizing training sessions are required to attend a 30-minute training session, “due to the stringent Maryland laws concerning referendums.”

“There will be several training sessions offered, but if transportation to them is a problem for you, a trainer would be happy to meet with you at a more convenient time and location,” the email states.

The email says the Mormon Church is “neutral on matters of party politics,” but asks that members take an active role in civic duties.

“The Church does encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections, and becoming engaged in the political process in an informed and civil manner,” the email states. “Please consider helping with this very important effort. Every signature is important and every little bit helps!”

In an email to the Blade, Schaerr said she’s organizing against the Maryland marriage law not out of any guidance or pressure from the church, but on her own accord.

“My understanding of the religious principles taught by  the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in ‘The Proclamation on the Family,’ the scriptures and numerous statements by church leaders has informed my conscience, and I am seeking to follow my conscience,” the email states.

Schaerr also expressed concern that the same-sex marriage law in Maryland would stifle those who want to speak out against homosexuality.

“I believe the Maryland law extends beyond providing rights to gay couples and actually seeks to silence religious objections to same sex relationships by changing the definition of marriage,” she said.

A history of anti-gay politics

The LDS member named in the email as leading the effort, Schaerr, who failed in her bid to win a seat in 2010 on the Montgomery County School Board, isn’t a stranger to anti-gay activism.

In 2007, Schaerr was reportedly a board member of the Fairfax, Va.-based Family Leader Network, an organization that — along with Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum and Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays — led the effort against a Montgomery County law instituting lessons for 8th through 10th grade students on safe-sex practices that included gays.

According to the Gazette, Schaerr downplayed her involvement in the lawsuit against the curriculum while pursuing a seat on the school board two years ago, reportedly saying other board members wouldn’t support efforts to change the curriculum.

In an op-ed submitted to the Washington Post at the time she was running for the seat, Schaerr disputed the notion she’s anti-gay. However, she said she disagreed that schools should teach homosexuality is “inevitably innate” because she said there are other views to the contrary — even though those views are disputed by major medical and psychiatric professional associations.

“If we’re going to talk about anal sex in a health class or a condom video, it’s irresponsible not to warn students — especially gay students — about the medical evidence showing the heightened health risks of anal sex compared with vaginal sex, even with a condom,” Schaerr said.

Wallace, the other named person in the email, was also involved in the fight against the curriculum. According to an LDS publication called Meridian Magazine, Wallace objected to the gay-inclusive Montgomery County sex ed curriculum, and attended a school board meeting while holding a sign expressing her opinion. The article is no longer on the magazine’s website, but has been reposted on a Mormon online forum.

Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, said she isn’t surprised that Mormon Church officials are playing a role in the effort to rescind the Maryland marriage law, but doesn’t think the LDS Church is the lead organization in the effort.

“We were not aware of this email, however the Mormon Church has been very vocal in its opposition to marriage equality so it is not surprising,” Evans said. “We have no reason to believe they are taking a lead role in efforts to overturn the Civil Marriage Protection Act in Maryland.”

Church disavows involvement

The Mormon Church is disavowing any involvement in the organizational effort proposed in the email.

Dale Jones, an LDS spokesperson, said the church has no direct involvement in the effort to overturn the marriage law in Maryland.

“While the Church’s position in support of traditional marriage is well established, the effort in Maryland is not being organized through the Church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City,” Jones said. “Members, of course, will make their own decisions regarding their involvement in local issues.”

But the message recalls the Mormon Church’s lead role in passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. The First Presidency of the Church, or its governing body, publicly backed the initiative and reportedly encouraged members during church services to take an active role in contributing money and get-out-the-vote efforts to support the ban’s passage.

According to the New York Times, Protect Marriage, the organization responsible for Prop 8, estimates that nearly half of the $40 million in donations to the initiative came from LDS members and made up 80 to 90 percent of the volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts.

The Mormon Church has maintained that its direct involvement with the initiative was minimal — its total contributions amounted to nearly $190,000 — and church members were supporting Prop 8 on their own accord.

The Mormon involvement in Prop 8 was largely seen as public relations setback for the church in terms of public perception.

An LGBT rights supporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he’s spoken to senior church leaders and was told they want no involvement in future initiatives on marriage.

In January, a statement affirming marriage should remain between one man, one woman was reportedly read to Mormons in Minnesota as the state prepares to vote on a marriage amendment this fall. But according to Affirmation, a gay Mormon group, the statement was also read on an ad hoc basis and not under direction from church leadership.

Moreover, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a Mormon — looking like he’ll be the GOP presidential nominee, many suspect the church doesn’t want to take an active role in politics to avoid the perception that Mormon officials will tell Romney how to govern if he’s elected.

Randall Thacker, senior vice president for Affirmation, said his group intends to oppose efforts within the church against same-sex marriage — whether they’re part of a church effort or an ad hoc initiative.

“Our main stance is that we’re very, of course, pro-marriage [equality],” Thacker said. “We will take a stand wherever we have to, including even ad hoc groups, but we typically are more focused on directing and confronting the church when it acts officially.”

The email comes just weeks before the Open Stories Foundation conference is set for LGBT Mormons in Washington, D.C., called “Building Bridges of Understanding,” from April 20 to 22. Guest speakers will include Carol Lynn Pearson, an author who writes about gays in the Mormon Church, and Mitch Mayne, a gay Mormon who serves as the executive secretary in his congregation.

The full text of the email message follows:

Attention Registered Voters who are Residents of Maryland: 

As you have probably heard, the Maryland legislature passed a same sex marriage bill last February. A coalition of inter-denominational churches throughout Maryland has joined together to try to get a referendum on the November ballot that would allow the residents of Maryland to vote on this bill before it becomes law. Martha Schaerr, who is a member of the LDS Church, is organizing signature collection within Montgomery County and within the LDS Church.

We need to collect approximately 200,000 signatures by the end of May. We are looking for people to gather signatures within the LDS community. If you are willing to help with this important effort please contact Martha Schaerr as soon as possible at [email protected] or Teressa Wallace at [email protected].

If you would like to volunteer, you must attend a 30 minute training session due to the stringent Maryland laws concerning referendums. To register for a session please contact us as soon as possible. There will be several training sessions offered, but if transportation to them is a problem for you, a trainer would be happy to meet with you at a more convenient time and location.

The LDS Church is neutral of matters of party politics. The Church does encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections, and becoming engaged in the political process in an informed and civil manner. Please consider helping with this very important effort. Every signature is important and every little bit helps!

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Virginia

Va. students warn against ‘don’t say gay’ policies

New law requires parental notification of ‘sexually explicit content’ in classroom

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(Bigstock photo)

More than 600 students from across Virginia signed a letter from the Pride Liberation Project that calls for the Virginia Department of Education to clarify that teaching students about LGBTQ people and events is not “sexually explicit.”

Senate Bill 656, which Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed earlier this year, requires parents be notified when instructional materials contain “sexually explicit content” — without any input from students.

Current Virginia law defines “sexual conduct” as “masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse, or physical contact in an act of apparent sexual stimulation or gratification.”

Because SB 656 does not itself specify what constitutes “sexually explicit content,” LGBTQ students and activists are concerned that the bill will rest on Virginia’s pre-existing definition of sexual conduct.

In their full letter, signees argued that “In effect, SB 656 can potentially be interpreted to define all references to people in same-sex relationships as inherently sexual.”

“Consequently, all references to LGBTQIA+ people in K-12 schools, including Supreme Court cases, historical events impacting LGBTQIA+ people, and discussions about queer authors, may be deemed as sexually explicit content under SB 656, effectively erasing LGBTQIA+ representation in our school curriculum,” reads the Pride Liberation Project’s press release.

Representation has been shown to positively increase academic performance, and LGBTQ youth already face exacerbated risks of suicide and mental health crisis. In Virginia specifically, the vast majority of LGBTQ students reported hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks at school, and 26 percent of LGBTQ students reported being “disciplined for public displays of affection (PDA) that did not result in similar action for non-LGBTQ students.” 

 “Most of my LGBTQIA+ friends are already struggling with their mental health,” said one Loudoun County student in the Pride Liberation Project press release. “I’m scared about the message these guidelines could send and losing the already limited affirming representation in my class.” 

Another student from Richmond said that they “didn’t want to see their friends who are from homes that aren’t accepting not see themselves reflected at school.” 

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District of Columbia

SMYAL announces new executive director

Erin Whelan to start Sept. 1

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Erin Whelan (Photo courtesy of SMYAL)

SMYAL on Thursday announced Erin Whelan will become the organization’s new executive director on Sept. 1.

SMYAL’s mission is to support and empower LGBTQ youth ages 6-24.

A press release that announces Whelan’s appointment notes the organization over the last five years has grown “exponentially.” Its services include affirming programs, housing support, leadership training and mental health services, designed to help LGBTQ youth develop advocacy skills and an educated, welcoming community.   

Whelan most recently served as the director of housing and homeless services at LifeWorks, an Austin, Texas,-based nonprofit that provides youth with housing and services. She has worked in nonprofit management for almost 20 years, and SMYAL’s press release highlighted her commitment to antiracism, equity and the LGBTQ community. 

“Erin Whelan is a compassionate and strong leader who I am confident is the right person to lead SMYAL,” board chair Rob Cogorno said. “I could not be more proud of the tremendous growth in services for our LGBTQ youth and of the SMYAL staff’s hard work that made that growth possible. Erin’s extensive experience in service to youth in need and her passion for that work will help guide SMYAL in continuing its excellent work in this challenging time for LGBTQ youth in our region and across the country.” 

Whelan in the press release shared her enthusiasm for stepping into leadership with this driving purpose. 

“I am beyond excited and honored to join SMYAL as the new executive director. My work has been committed to understanding and seeing the world through the lens of the most marginalized youth and young adults and being a fierce advocate for LGBTQ youth,” Whelan said. “I believe all LGBTQ youth deserve an opportunity to build a life they love and a chance to feel celebrated and affirmed for exactly who they are and strive to be. From the moment I stepped into the SMYAL community, it felt like exactly where I wanted to be. SMYAL creates a community for queer and trans youth where they can feel radically accepted and safe to step into their true selves.” 

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National

Judge: West Virginia Medicaid must cover transgender care

Fain v. Crouch is litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans

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A U.S. District Court judge ruled Tuesday that West Virginia’s Medicaid program could no longer discriminate by excluding coverage for gender-confirming surgical care for transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. 

U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers also certified the lawsuit as a class action, covering all transgender West Virginians who participate in Medicaid.  In the lawsuit brought in November of 2020 by Lambda Legal, Nichols Kaster, and The Employment Law Center, the plantiffs challenged the state’s ban on gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s Medicaid and state employee health plans.

“We applaud Judge Chamber’s decision to remove the discriminatory barrier to accessing medically necessary, gender-confirming surgical care for all transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants. Protecting and advancing health care for transgender people is vital, sound, and just. Transgender West Virginia Medicaid participants deserve to have equal access to the same coverage for medically necessary healthcare that cisgender Medicaid participants receive as a matter of course,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal. 

Fain v. Crouch is a class action litigation challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia’s state health plans. The blanket exclusions of coverage for care are stated expressly in the health plans offered to Medicaid participants and to state employees. West Virginia’s state health plans serve approximately 564,000 Medicaid participants and15,000 state employees.

“I am excited to finally have access to the healthcare I deserve. The exclusion negatively affects my health and wellbeing as well as the health and wellbeing of other transgender Medicaid participants in our community. Gender-confirming care is healthcare, and it is lifesaving,” said plaintiff Shauntae Anderson, West Virginia Medicaid participant.  

“This is a victory not only for me but for other transgender Medicaid participants across West Virginia. This decision is validating, confirming that after years of fighting to prove that gender-confirming care is medically necessary, we should have access to the same services that West Virginia Medicaid already provides to cisgender participants. Transgender West Virginians should never feel as if our lives are worth less than others,” said plaintiff Christopher Fain, West Virginia Medicaid participant. 

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