When the U.S. Senate reconvenes this week following Thanksgiving break, it is expected to take up a final vote on — and pass — an amended Respect for Marriage Act that would codify same-sex marriage in federal law and provide protections for religious expression — a balanced approach supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The church announced its support for the bill’s amendment process Nov. 15, startling some who wondered if it was a departure from the faith’s firm doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman — it isn’t — and observers who remember the church’s opposition to earlier ballot propositions for same-sex marriage.
But the fact that, as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said, the church provided “thoughtful suggestions and contributions” to the religious freedom amendments to the Respect for Marriage Act was no surprise to those who have watched carefully as church leaders have spent more than a decade carving out a solution to one of America’s most divisive issues.
Now a church leader has provided the rationale behind the church’s position on the Respect for Marriage Act. So why does the church support it, and what does it say and do?
“Same-sex marriage is the law in all 50 states. We know that. That’s not consistent with our doctrine, but that’s the reality,” said Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and the signatory on the letter indicating the church’s support. “So what we’re trying to do is go forward protecting our religious rights while at the same time respecting our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who have a very different view.”
He said there are two main reasons the church supports the Senate’s amended Respect for Marriage Act.
“First, it is clear our well-known doctrine on marriage will remain unchanged,” he said. “This does not change church doctrine. In fact, the religious freedom amendments (in the Respect for Marriage Act) support our ability to practice our doctrine.”
“Second, the support of these amendments will ensure that all religious people and institutions are respected and protected, even though they have a doctrine or practice that’s inconsistent with the law of the land.”
What is the Respect for Marriage Act?
The Respect for Marriage Act is a direct response to a written opinion by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that the court should reconsider its 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established a federal right to same-sex marriage. Justice Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr. went out of his way in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (which overturned Roe v. Wade) to specifically distinguish it from Obergefell and other 14th Amendment cases.
The Respect for Marriage Act passed the House in July with two simple goals.
The bill would repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, a definition previously struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Those laws still sit there on the books. The Supreme Court says, ‘Thou shalt not enforce that law,’ but those laws should come off the books,” Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs for the University of Illinois, previously told the Deseret News. Wilson helped draft the Utah Compromise, a 2015 law that broadly protected LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.
The Supreme Court ruled that law was unconstitutional in 2013 in United States v. Windsor.
The second goal of the House bill was to establish a federal rule that states must recognize a same-sex marriage entered legally in another state.
“The Respect for Marriage Act is like insurance,” Cliff Rosky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Utah who has been on the advisory council of Equality Utah, said. “In case Obergefell is overturned, Congress is saying, ‘We believe same-sex couples have the right to marry,’ and those marriages will be valid nationwide.”
The House bill passed with strong bipartisan support. But it did not include protections for religious freedom, so religious organizations mobilized to seek changes.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was well-prepared.
Why do Latter-day Saint leaders support the Respect for Marriage Act?
For 13 years, the Church of Jesus Christ has actively supported lawmaking that provides nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people while simultaneously protecting the right of religions to maintain their doctrines and practices.
In 2009, the church publicly backed two Salt Lake City ordinances that protected LGBTQ residents from housing and employment discrimination.
With those ordinances in place, Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, held a news conference in 2015 to announce the church’s Fairness For All initiative. Within two months, the Utah Compromise added sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s nondiscrimination laws in housing and employment and also clarified exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates. It also provided protections for religious expression.
Church leaders view their position as pragmatic.
“In a head-on conflict over individual free exercise (of religion) and enforced non-discrimination in housing and employment,” President Dallin H. Oaks, now first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, said that year, “the Utah Legislature crafted a compromise position under the banner of ‘fairness for all.’ 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 law-making branch but not the judiciary.”
Fairness for all has been the driving force behind the church’s support for laws that dually support LGBTQ rights and religious rights ever since, with examples in Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and more. Those efforts are happening city by city or state by state. But the church also has supported the federal Fairness for All Act, introduced in Congress in 2019, which would provide federal protection for LGBTQ people not only in housing and employment but in public accommodations.
“I’m not sure why anybody is surprised,” Elder Gerard said. “The church has tried to make peace in this difficult area for many years.” We established the model in 2015, and it’s worked very well in the state of Utah.” Elder Gerard said, “... while the Respect for Marriage Act doesn’t address all the issues in Fairness for All, this legislation is very significant and consistent with where the church has been for years.”
LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws have broad support. A 2021 study showed 79% of Americans favor laws that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, housing and public accommodations, up from 69% in 2018.
Elder Gerard said that the church also views its approach from a doctrinal standpoint regarding the two great commandments taught by Jesus Christ. Protecting the liberty to hold its religious beliefs is part of loving God by keeping his commandments, and protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination is part of loving one’s neighbor, he said.
So when the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act, the church was ready to contribute when a group of U.S. senators proposed amendments to it to protect religious liberty.
“The approach that’s being adopted in Washington, D.C., actually mirrors what Utah did in 2015 with the full support of the church,” Elder Gerard said. “It recognizes the current law of the land as dictated by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it also protects our right to practice our faith even though it’s inconsistent with that law of the land.”
“I hope that people understand that our doctrine remains the same,” Elder Gerard added. “This is not a compromise of our doctrine. This is an acknowledgement, on a bipartisan basis of Republicans and Democrats, that we need to protect the right of people of faith to exercise their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience.”
Four senators acknowledged the church’s contributions in their comments on the Senate floor during debate on the Respect for Marriage Act.
The amendments the Senate added to the Respect for Marriage Act establish that churches, temples, synagogues or mosques do not have to host or provide services for same-sex marriages, Rosky said. The amendments protect religious tax exemptions and universities sponsored by churches. It would not legalize polygamous marriages, either, he said.
In fact, the bill includes a direct statement of respect for diverse beliefs, Rosky said.
Elder Gerard said the amendments were vital for church support.
“When you think of what the Supreme Court did, for example, in Obergefell, it acknowledged or authorized same-sex marriage as protected by the Constitution. That is very different than our doctrine,” he said. “So under these religious freedom amendments, we’ve been able to protect our doctrine and (the right to practice our faith) when the law of the land may be quite different. So these are very significant amendments in protecting our right to continue to practice marriage between one man and one woman.”
There is also LGBTQ support for the bill.
“The Respect for Marriage Act is an incredible example of bipartisanship and the way that legislation should be done,” said Michael Soto, chief advocacy officer of ONE Community, a group that seeks to advance workplace equality and equal treatment in housing and public accommodations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
He has worked alongside Latter-day Saint leaders to advance nondiscrimination bills that include religious liberty protections in Arizona and elsewhere.
“Policy should further advance everyone’s rights and freedoms, and this bill is a great example of that. It protects and advances the rights of people of faith and institutions of faith and it fully protects civil marriage as it applies to all people, including LGBTQ people and interracial couples,” Soto said.
The amendments have not assuaged all religious organizations, but they have drawn broad religious support.
“When you look at the protections these amendments offer, they are very significant,” Elder Gerard said. “It protects our interest to practice our faith, it protects our institutions of higher learning, and it protects our activities associated with the church, be it our buildings and other places associated with the faith and with the church. So in that context, we believe these amendments are very adequate to protect the church interests.”
What’s next for the Respect for Marriage Act?
The Senate voted 62-37 to consider the bill. A final vote on the version with religious liberty amendments is possible this week. If it passes the Senate, it will go to the House. If approved there, it would go to President Joe Biden for his signature.
What Latter-day Saint leaders say
President Oaks has given several landmark addresses that reveal the principles behind the Fairness for All approach of senior church leadership.
“Our efforts to resolve challenges to religious liberty will be strengthened if we do not always seek total dominance for our own positions,” he said in July at a religious liberty conference sponsored by Notre Dame in Rome.
“Some accommodations may be necessary as we strive to honor legitimate laws and respect other persons’ highest ideals and human experiences. Conflicting claims are best resolved by seeking to understand the experiences and concerns of others, and by good faith negotiations. None of this requires any compromise of our core religious principles, but rather a careful examination of what is really essential to our free exercise of religion, in contrast to what other believers consider really essential to their beliefs. In this way we learn to live peacefully with some laws we dislike and with some persons whose values differ from our own.”
That explanation, like the church’s now longstanding support of laws that both protect religious rights and LGBTQ rights, was not new.
In 2016, the church’s top lawyer outlined the church’s approach to protecting religious liberty during a speech at BYU. He said people of faith should prioritize the defense of an innermost core of religious freedoms. That means they also have to be willing to compromise on freedoms outside that core, said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and an emeritus General Authority Seventy.
Clearly, the church’s doctrine that marriage is between a man and a woman is part of its innermost core. What is not core is standing in the way of the already legal right of same-sex couples to marry, or for LGBTQ people to have equal rights in housing, employment and public accommodations.
The Fairness for All approach of the church’s senior leadership embodies that principle. President Oaks and other Latter-day Saints apostles have spoken about it frequently in recent years and months.
“Religious freedom is as much a duty toward others as it is a right for oneself,” Elder Ulisses Soares said in Brazil in March during a historic three-day symposium on freedom of religion or belief. Elder Soares serves in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for the church.
“… We gain freedom by supporting the freedom of those we deem to be our adversaries. When we see that our interests are tied to the interests of everyone else, then the real work of religious freedom begins,” he said during the conference, speaking in Portuguese.
In July at the Notre Dame conference in Rome, President Oaks shared key principles for how church leaders approach their efforts to protect religious liberty, principles that clearly relate to the church’s Fairness for All approach.
One has roots to persecution of the church in the 1800s, he said.
“We have learned that the best remedy for religious persecution that affects us is to join in efforts to reduce religious persecution that affects others,” President Oaks said.
He noted that church leaders recognize that “religious rights cannot be absolute.”
“In a nation with citizens of many different religious beliefs or disbeliefs, the government must sometimes limit the rights of some to act upon their religious beliefs when doing so is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of all,” President Oaks said. “In addition, some other citizens may even have competing constitutional rights against which some religious liberties must be balanced.”
For Elder Gerard, the Senate’s amended version of the Respect for Marriage does what the Utah Compromise did. It is an example of how to resolve the most difficult issues in an era of divisive politics. It shows that including people of faith in political debates can lead to better outcomes, he said.
“We want to lead by example, and we want to be able to model to civil society how religious leaders can play a very constructive role in helping us find peace,” he said. “The amended Respect for Marriage Act allows us to follow President Oaks’ admonition to truly come together in unity where we can find peace in a polarized world. This should be the way forward or the model forward for other issues that have divided the country.”