Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When "free speech" crosses the line

Much has been made in the days since the election about the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which banned gay marriage and defined it in the California constitution as being between one man and one woman. I'm not really posting this to debate whether or not Prop 8 was right or wrong-- I think I've made it pretty clear about what I feel about it and why-- but moreso to address my thoughts on the aftermath. It is no secret that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons) wanted this to pass as did several other religious and conservative organizations. The Church had letters from the First Presidency read in congregations not only in California, but around the U.S. urging members to support the measure both in voting (for those in California) and in monetary donations. It is estimated that Mormon contributions accounted for around 50% of the total raised for the "Yes on 8" side, many of them coming from outside California (Utah in particular), despite that fact that Mormons make up around just 2-4% of the voting population in California. Because of the large organizational and funding role the Church played in Prop 8 passing, it has become the target of protests from gay and gay-advocate groups across the country, many saying the Church overstepped the bounds of separation of church and state. Many LDS buildings (as well as other churches and organizations that supported Prop 8) have been targeted for vandalism or picketing, which included a large protest at the Los Angeles temple that resulted in the temple being shut down for a day.

I think the biggest thing that jumps out at me is the absolute anger and hatred that has been directed at the Church from some of these groups, like it's solely the Church's fault this passed. As I already mentioned, Mormons (we prefer to be called Latter-day Saints or LDS with "saint" simply meaning a follower of Christ) account for only a small fraction of California voters, so there were obviously a LOT more people who agreed with us. On top of that, Obama carried California easily, so many of his supportes also supported Prop 8 showing that it wasn't just a conservative vote. An even bigger point I found interesting is the fact that the "No on 8" side raised more money than "Yes on 8" and still lost. I think this is purely an emotional reaction and the Church is the most visible thing to direct anger at. What's ironic about the whole thing is that these groups accuse the Church of promoting "hate" by supporting Prop 8, but they express that belief by promoting hate of the Church, particularly violence. In reality, Mormons don't look at this as taking away rights. Indeed, Mormons don't even regard marriage itself as a "right;" they regard it as one of the highest sacraments. Mormons regard Prop 8 (and the amendments that passed the same day in Arizona and Florida) as a defining of marriage issue, preventing the government from legally changing the definition of an institution that predates the government by thousands of years and an institution Mormons (and most other Christians) believe only God can define (and has defined). The sad irony is that in their quest for tolerance and understanding, too many gay rights activists are not showing either towards Mormon and conservative viewpoints. Sorry, tolerance and understanding is a two-way street. I am happy to see some leaders of the protests finally speaking out against the violence (especially the vandalism of LDS buildings and the mailing of white powder to LDS temples).

As for separation of church and state, this is hardly even close to being outside of the law. Churches are tax-exempt, but are forbidden from promoting candidates or a political party. They are, however, free to support issues, particularly ones that are morally based, such as this one. Although many view Prop 8 purely as a legal issue, most religious conservatives regard it as a moral issue when the definition of marriage is concerned. The Church was hardly the only religious organization to weigh in on Prop 8. It was part of a larger faith-based coalition which supported Prop 8 that also included groups like the Roman Catholic Church (who has far more members in California than Mormons!) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. On the flip side, several other Jewish groups, Episcopalian bishops, and the United Church of Christ opposed Prop 8. Guess what? That is their constitutional right. If a group is going to go after the LDS Church for crossing the line of church and state, then you have to go after the ones who were on the other side too. The first amendment wasn't designed to keep religious influence totally out of government; it was designed to keep government out of religion and avoid the establishment of a state religion (which is what exists in many European countries, including the United Kingdom). And separation of church and state, which is a phrase that came from Thomas Jefferson and later Supreme Court cases, doesn't mean churches cannot have a say in matters they feel are important.

In the end, there seems to be quite a bit of misunderstanding on both sides. This is a case where we all need to step back, take a deep breath, and agree to disagree civily. Protesting and shouting slogans accusing Mormons and other conservative groups of "hate" aren't winning any converts, nor are hard-core conservative approaches like "God hates gays" (a statement I TOTALLY disagree with!) working either. In the end, we have two very deeply-rooted and firm beliefs that conflict.

On a side note, I was interviewed by a reporter from the Daily Kent Stater in relation to Prop 8 and the subsequent reaction. I will post the article when I am made aware of its publication.

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