In response to the accusation that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposed “gay rights,” the church’s online “Newsroom” made the following statement:
It is important to understand that this issue for the Church has always been about the sacred and divine institution of marriage — a union between a man and a woman.
Allegations of bigotry or persecution made against the Church were and are simply wrong. The Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage neither constitutes nor condones any kind of hostility toward gays and lesbians. Even more, the Church does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.
(Anonymous: “Church Responds to Same-Sex Marriage Votes,” http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/church-responds-to-same-sex-marriage-votes, November 2008, accessed 9 November 2008).
At first glance, this seems to suggest that the church is only interesting in restricting marriage. The discussion of other “rights” not deemed objectionable have led some to assume that the church does not oppose domestic partnerships or civil unions, but this is inaccurate. Clarification is offered by an interview with Elder Oaks and Elder Wickman:
PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Would you extend the same argument against same-gender marriage to civil unions or some kind of benefits short of marriage?
ELDER WICKMAN: One way to think of marriage is as a bundle of rights associated with what it means for two people to be married. What the First Presidency has done is express its support of marriage and for that bundle of rights belonging to a man and a woman. The First Presidency hasn’t expressed itself concerning any specific right. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. If you have some legally sanctioned relationship with the bundle of legal rights traditionally belonging to marriage and governing authority has slapped a label on it, whether it is civil union or domestic partnership or whatever label it’s given, it is nonetheless tantamount to marriage. That is something to which our doctrine simply requires us to speak out and say, “That is not right. That’s not appropriate.”
As far as something less than that — as far as relationships that give to some pairs in our society some right but not all of those associated with marriage — as to that, as far as I know, the First Presidency hasn’t expressed itself. There are numbers of different types of partnerships or pairings that may exist in society that aren’t same-gender sexual relationships that provide for some right that we have no objection to. All that said… there may be on occasion some specific rights that we would be concerned about being granted to those in a same-gender relationship. Adoption is one that comes to mind, simply because that is a right which has been historically, doctrinally associated so closely with marriage and family. I cite the example of adoption simply because it has to do with the bearing and the rearing of children. Our teachings, even as expressed most recently in a very complete doctrinal sense in the Family Proclamation by living apostles and prophets, is that children deserve to be reared in a home with a father and a mother.
(LDS Public Affairs, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, and Elder Lance B. Wickman: “Same-Gender Attraction,” http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/public-issues/same-gender-attraction (August 2006, accessed 9 November 2008).
If I am understanding Elder Wickman correctly, he seems reticent to support “civil unions” of gays if they are, in effect, de facto “marriages.” In other words, the objection is more than just over the label “marriage.” For example, any civil rights that guaranteed gay partnerships the right of adoption would be suspect, because adoption is “closely [aligned] with marriage and family.” He seems reticent to explain what rights the church would not find objectionable, but one imagines that the rights suggested in the first statement would be included.
In short, Elder Wickman offers no blanket tolerance of civil unions. This view is supported by the Newsroom-authored editorial, “The Divine Institution of Marriage.”
Legalizing same-sex marriage will affect a wide spectrum of government activities and policies. Once a state government declares that same-sex unions are a civil right, those governments almost certainly will enforce a wide variety of other policies intended to ensure that there is no discrimination against same-sex couples.
(Anonymous: “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-divine-institution-of-marriage (August 2008, accessed 9 November 2008)
Here, no meaningful difference seems to be made between gay marriage and “same-sex unions.” Indeed, in a state where civil unions — of any type — are deemed a “civil right,” the same potentially negative consequences to churches (loss of tax exemptions for opposing homosexual unions, for example) are believed to apply. As Kaimi has pointed out on his post, “California law really does treat registered domestic partners the same as married couples.”
All of this suggests more than a battle over the word “marriage.” Thus, future discussion of this issue must accept that the church also seems to oppose gay marriage in other names, a point which some people seem to have missed.
Interestingly, the Deseret News’s Mormon Times also seems to have misunderstood church policy, at least if I am reading their editorial decisions fairly. In February of this year, the Mormon Times highlighted the decision by Michael Mosman, a conservative Mormon judge in Oregon, to throw out a challenge to Oregon’s new civil unions law (Anonymous: “Civil union ruling puts judge in the spotlight,” http://www.mormontimes.com/around_church/general_authority/?id=4453, accessed November 9, 2008).
It seems inconceivable to me that the Mormon Times would highlight the activities of a judge whose decisions were dissonant with such a hot topic in contemporary Mormonism, and I can only assume that a view is developing in some circles that civil unions are tolerable (if unfortunate). As suggested by the above statements, this view is erroneous. Perhaps the Newsroom should offer further clarity here as it seems the view of General Authorities (Elder Oaks, Elder Wickman, and the church’s own efforts in Vermont in 2000) are rather clear. The most we can say is that the church does not oppose very limited domestic partnerships, although I have no idea how one delineates “limited” in practice.
It may be true, however, that the church will now concentrate its efforts on “marriage” rather than “civil unions” for practical reasons. Determining what rights are tolerable and selling this to the public would be a tiring exercise. Fighting for marriage in the civic arena may be all the church can manage for the conceivable future, but do not think that the church wouldn’t also oppose civil unions if she could. Time will tell.
UPDATE: Elder Clayton’s statement was pointed out to me:
He said in general, the church “does not oppose civil unions or domestic partnerships,” that involve benefits like health insurance and property rights. That stand was outlined in a statement the church posted on its Web site earlier in the campaign. (http://deseretnews.com/article/content/mobile/1,5620,705260852,00.html?printView=true, published November 6 2008, accessed November 12 2008).
Again, it seems that “civil unions” here are highly circumscribed.