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Robert Bennett: Take ineffective laws off the books

President Barack Obama holds an immigration meeting with faith leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 8, 2013.
President Barack Obama holds an immigration meeting with faith leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 8, 2013.
Pete Souza, The White House

Recently President Barack Obama invited a group of religious leaders to the White House to discuss immigration reform. Most endorsed his proposals, including President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who said they were in harmony with "the values of our church."

I went into the blogosphere to see how this statement was received by those members of the LDS church who are opposed to Obama's plan. Some were respectful of President Uchtdorf's views, even as they maintained a different position, but others expressed anger with his statement. "We were taught to respect the law — to uphold and sustain it — but this shows that the church no longer believes in that." That triggered a memory.

In the 1950s, W. Cleon Skousen was appointed Salt Lake City's chief of police. He immediately sent officers to Derks Field, the baseball park, to stop the sale of beer there, even though beer at the ballpark had been a long standing tradition in Salt Lake. While it was against city law, everyone "winked" at the practice until Skousen showed up and, in a very public way, complete with photo-ops for the newspapers, shut it down.

There was an uproar. Skousen was denounced as a religious fanatic who was trying to impose his narrow views upon the public at large. Beer was readily available to adults in grocery stores; what did it hurt for it also to be available to adults in a ballpark, as it had always been? Why couldn't he be as tolerant of the situation as his predecessors?

His response was very simple — it's the law. If you don't like it, then repeal it and I will be happy to allow beer to be sold at Derks Field again.

The City Commission very quickly did so and the chief equally quickly withdrew his officers, perhaps with a smile on his face. He had known all along that this would be the likely outcome. I well remember his comments after the incident was over, which were basically these:

"The best way to build respect for and obedience to law is to take bad laws off the books. People naturally tend to disobey them, which makes our job that much harder. I did what I did not to keep beer away from baseball but to get the city to change a law which was openly flouted and practically unenforceable."

Back to America's current immigration laws. They have been a failure. They have had the effect of either keeping out or disrupting the lives of people whom we want in our country, be they well educated professionals anxious to work for our high tech companies or semi-skilled workers willing to take jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. At the same time, they have been ineffective if not unenforceable with respect to those we don't want, such as criminals and those with no job prospects. There have been bad results at both ends of the spectrum of this debate.

I believe President Uchtdorf's comments should be read in this context. When he said that Obama's proposal was in harmony with LDS values he was not telling church members that it was all right to break current immigration laws. Instead, he was endorsing the idea of replacing them with something better, something tied to the realities of the situation. That's a position consistent with the lesson Chief Skousen taught the Salt Lake City Commission over half a century ago — life goes better when laws that aren't working are taken off the books.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.