Civil unions

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,”, 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,” (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,” (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,”, 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. (,5620,705260852,00.html?printView=true, published November 6 2008, accessed November 12 2008).

Again, it seems that “civil unions” here are highly circumscribed.


  1. Sheesh, Ronan. I expect this kind of poaching from Steve Evans. But now you too?

  2. MikeInWeHo says:

    Thanks for this, Ronan. You echo my opinion on the matter perfectly. I am at times frustrated to read pro- Prop 8 commenters arguing that besides gay marriage, the Church is ‘supportive’ of legal protections for gays. The evidence overwhelming points in the other direction, imo.

    Please tell us how this issue has been addressed in the U.K. I know that Civil Partnerships have been established. What does that mean? Was there any LDS involvement for or against? Has the gay community found them acceptable or is there still a push for full-on marriage?

  3. Mike,

    If you trust wikipedia, see the following link:

  4. Mike – for wikipedia info on civil partnerships in the UK go here.

    I don’t remember the case gomez mentions, and there doesn’t seem to be a big push for it to be defined as marriage. The restriction on CPs is that it can’t take place in a church. Considering the religiousness of the British, (or rather the lack of religiousness) I suspect this is why there’s not a bigger effort to redefine it.

    The service is overseen by a registrar as is every marriage in the UK and the rights of a CP are the same as any married couple. It’s as binding as marriage – requiring dissolution (divorce), annulment or death to void it.

    The church had nothing to say to members (as far as I know) in the run up to the Civil Partnership Act being passed.

  5. John Mansfield says:

    I expect the Church’s political neutrality regarding the Union Civica Radical and the Peronistas will continue.

  6. A 30-yr old quote that’s so applicable to today.


    “Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters, in the months and years ahead, events are likely to require each member to decide whether or not he will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions. President Marion G. Romney said, many years ago, that he had ‘never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional or political life.’

    “This is hard doctrine, but it is particularly vital doctrine in a society which is becoming more wicked. In short, brothers and sisters, not being ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes not being ashamed of the prophets of Jesus Christ. . . . Your discipleship may see the time when such religious convictions are discounted. . . . This new irreligious imperialism seeks to disallow certain opinions simply because those opinions grow out of religious convictions.

    “Resistance to abortion will be seen as primitive. Concern over the institution of the family will be viewed as untrendy and unenlightened…. Before the ultimate victory of the forces of righteousness, some skirmishes will be lost. Even in these, however, let us leave a record so that the choices are clear, letting others do as they will in the face of prophetic counsel. There will also be times, happily, when a minor defeat seems probable, but others will step forward, having been rallied to rightness by what we do. We will know the joy, on occasion, of having awakened a slumbering majority of the decent people of all races and creeds which was, till then, unconscious of itself. Jesus said that when the fig trees put forth their leaves, ‘summer is nigh.’ Thus warned that summer is upon us, let us not then complain of the heat.” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell, BYU devotional address, Oct 10, 1978)

  7. It would seem to me that the Church cannot be put into a position of supporting civil unions or domestic partnerships because they, in effect, call for the normalization of homosexual behavior. There is a difference between saying we are morally neutral on hospital visitation rights or inheritance rights or health care — these are moral issues in which the Church is not being asked to take a position on whether or not the actual sexual act is a sin but instead is considering the fairness of how certain people should be treated in society. But sanctioning a civil union or domestic partnership in effect says the Church is OK with people having sexual relationships that we do believe are sinful. My prediction is that this aspect of Church policy will not change.

  8. Ronan: You failed to note the most salient fact: the Church didn’t express any opposition to California’s domestic partner laws.

    The Church hasn’t argued that those domestic partner or civil union laws ought to be repealed tho they could be by the same majority vote.

    Sometimes looking at actions speak louder than words. The Church cares about the institution of marriage. It’s press releases have expressly stated that it doesn’t oppose the same kinds of legal rights given in civil unions. Sometimes folks miss the obvious.

    It is also possible that the Church’s views are evolving in engaging issues. Let’s not hold the Church to a static position and disallow a change of view on such issues.

  9. Kaimi,
    My forefather stole sheep from the baron’s land. I can’t overcome my genetic predispositions.

    The Church cares about the institution of marriage. It’s press releases have expressly stated that it doesn’t oppose the same kinds of legal rights given in civil unions.

    Er, nope.

  10. “Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters, in the months and years ahead, events are likely to require each member to decide whether or not he will follow the First Presidency.

    When is this ever not true?

  11. Ronan – I think the last paragraph of the OP is right on the money. According to the memo from Loren C. Dunn, back in 1997, “Elder Oaks was the first to recognize that in the political process that in order to win this battle, there may have to be certain legal rights recognized for unmarried people such as hospital visitation so opponents in the legislature will come away with something.”

    No matter the motive, I welcome the change in rhetoric.

  12. If anyone’s wondering about that memo referred to in #11, Daily Kos is all aflutter about getting a “leaked” confidential church memo. Wonder how they got it?

  13. Ronan: Eh, yup.

  14. If I remember President Hinckley’s comments to Larry King correct, he hedged on the question about civil unions, saying that perhaps the Church could accept them if they didn’t approach marriage.

  15. Ronan, your “church’s efforts in Vermont” link accesses an article from January of 2000, and your LDS newsroom posts are dated by when you accessed them but you give no indication of when they were written. This is not helpful in determining a progression of LDS leaders’ statements. You make all the articles sound as though they were written the same day.

  16. Tommy,
    Good point. I’ll amend if I get time.

    The church’s press releases state that it doesn’t oppose a limited set of rights (e.g. hospital rights). It is clear from the other statements, however, that civil union rights which begin to look like “marriage” rights are not supported by the church.

  17. I believe that the Wickman/Oaks interview was published on August 16, 2006; and in its entirety represented a massive move in the position of the Church regarding homosexuality.

  18. To second Nope’s point I think you have to look at what the Church opposed and what it didn’t. While I think you’re right that the Church doesn’t want a de facto same sex relations as normalized it clearly doesn’t mind and may even support basic rights in terms of being able to do things. The one exception might be adoption but even there I haven’t seen the Church coming out against that or in support of bills or amendments stopping gay adoption.

    The bigger issue is the Florida law which I believe was far more restrictive that prop-8 and which I’m told was not supported by the Church precisely because it took away rights. Can someone with more facts there weigh in?

    I’d also second Tommy’s point about dates. I think that the Church, like many, took a fairly reflexive view of homosexuality that saw it as a sexual choice. It seems that the past years have seen serious rethinking of that issue. Once you accept that something isn’t a free choice then a lot of consequences follow. It seems to me that the Church is walking through those consequences and trying to do the right thing while simultaneously preserving the traditional meaning of marriage.

  19. The Church set up its own website supporting Proposition 8. Under the category “Other Reasons to support Proposition 8”, the website lists the following Q&A: “Does Proposition 8 take existing rights away from same-sex couples?No. All the rights gay couples have in current civil unions will still be in force.”

    The fact that this was listed, in an official Church website, as a “reason to support Proposition 8” suggests, at least implicitly, that the Church does not object to “civil unions” in California for “gay couple.”

    I do think it represents a change in position, albeit, perhaps, politically driven (I do not think there would be a snowball’s chance of passage in California of a measure banning civil unions; such a proposition failed in Arizona two years ago, and it only passed when the proposition was limited to gay marriage.)

  20. Ronan (16) unless we can define what a civil union that “looks like marriage” is that’s not too helpful. Certainly there is a meaning to marriage that is symbolic. It is the symbol that the Church is worried about (IMO) but not just the word. We might, as a shorthand, say it is the term but clearly that can’t be the case in a strict literal sense as the term could be translated into multiple languages with no loss of the symbol. It’s the symbol that counts.

    What I’d want to see is what tangible rights the Church wouldn’t support. (i.e. legal rights or rights to do something beyond have the symbol applied and accepted). You haven’t done that but have merely speculated there are some. I guess I just don’t see that.

    What I see the Church saying is marriage is sacred and is tied to religion. So long as the State is involved in religion then the Church has to get involved because otherwise it is the apostasy of a major religious symbol.

    The solution which ought please everyone is to simply get the State entirely out of the marriage business. I don’t think the State ought be offering licenses to perform a religious rite. We’d all be up in arms if we had to go to the courthouse to get a license to be baptized. Why do we accept it with marriage?

    I’d note that even before polygamy Joseph and other Elders got in trouble for performing marriages without a license. The Edmund-Tuckers act had as a major point not allowing Mormons to marry. Only the state could. Given the age of many of the brethren – especially Pres. Hinkley – those issues are for them far more “real and present” than they may be for us for whom that’s all ancient history. Yet for both Monson and Hinkley that was something most of the people in their wards growing up dealt with.

  21. It seems that more and more that the church’s stance is that it just be separate. It can be almost equal, but it has to be separate.

  22. Ronan, you’re a good man. I appreciate your civility. In re-reading my original post I have noticed that it came across a bit snarky, so thanks for seeing past that.

  23. There was a great analogy someone brought up on this topic at my blog.

    Consider the question of a similar term with symbolic and religious connotations. Let’s say there was an effort to redefine “kosher” on food labels such that it suddenly included pork. Is there anyway to deal with that?

    Now it’s not a perfect analogy simply because there are religious consequences to being confused over whether something is kosher that simply isn’t the case with SSM. But I’m curious as to what you think. It seems the best analogy to the LDS view that I’ve seen.

  24. Clark:

    I agree and disagree with the kosher analogy. I agree that from a religious perspective, it would require a prophet receiving a message that “what God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.” From the State’s viewpoint, however, there needs to be a rational basis for a law. Extending the analogy, if the state imposed kosher on the citizens because of health concerns, that may have been a good idea because of the dangers of eating undercooked pork. But cooking technology has progressed to a point where it makes eating pork safe. The State has no rational basis for restricting pork, and so pork must be included in the state’s health code. If the State calls that code kosher, it leads to confusion, and I think that would be analogous to the situation we have here.

  25. I don’t think the State needs a rational basis for law. They may say they do but a lot of law is based upon irrationality.

    I know there is a tradition that laws need to be utilitarian. This is Blake’s view on why SSM is bad. There is no State interest. But I disagree pretty strongly with him on that.

    To me the answer is that State licensing of marriage is a violation of the Church/State separation principle. You can see this most profoundly in our 19th century experiences. (Not just polygamy but marrying people without a license)

    Get the State out of marriage. All this controversy would go away if the State wasn’t doing this.

  26. Clark, that seems pretty unrealistic. The result of that would be that people who wanted to be married would be required to do so in a Church. There are a lot of people who would not be comfortable with that.

  27. Martin Willey says:

    Adoption is the biggie here. I really hope the two sides can find common ground, but with adoption in the mix, it is hard to see how. I mean, do you really see gay marriage advocates saying civil unions, not including adoption rights, are ok? And, do you really see the church getting on board with adoption by gay parents? It is a tough nut to crack.

  28. MCQ there could still be civil unions just not marriages. I think it’s unrealistic it could happen primarily because I think the Evangelicals would block it. But I think it the best solution.

    What is the Church’s position on gay adoption. I have to say that if someone has a kid and is in a long term relationship it seems fair to allow adoption.

  29. I keep reading the idea that the state get out of marriage altogether as a proposed solution to this controversy. Before jumping here, people should think hard about why states began to regulate marriage in the first place.

    Marriage links fathers to their children. When a child is born, the mother is there. The father is not necessarily there. Through the institution of marriage, a father and mother are linked together so their children can grow up in a stable environment.

    What happens without marriage? Illegitimate children. Yes, the law can say that fathers have to support their children whether or not they were ever married, but there are big problems with this in practice. I and probably you know fathers of illegitimate children who live in their parents’ basements with dead-end low-wage jobs so they can avoid paying child support.

    If you make marriage a purely private affair, you are saying that only weirdo religious types should get married. That will really reduce the marriage rate, which will in turn reduce the number of children in the next generation who have a father in the home.

    In times past when marriage was only run by religions, there wasn’t religious freedom. Most little towns in Europe had one church in their town. Marriage was still universal. When there began to be more religious freedom, the states took over marriage licenses.

    I think that it’s a little scary that people jump so quickly to this conclusion without thinking of what the state’s interest is in regulating marriage. Imagine what your family tree would look like if your ancestors hadn’t lived in a society where marriage was expected. Imagine doing genealogy to research that family tree without marriage records. Eek!

  30. The LDS Church and other Churches will have to make clear what they can live with that would constitutes a “domestic partnership”, “civil unions” or whatever the agreed title. This issue is not going to go away otherwise. To be ambiguous is unfair. The Churches have for now set the boundary to protect marriage and now they need to clarify the rest. The these people are wicked sinners and don’t deserve any rights will not stand.

  31. Sara, people were marrying long before the State started regulating it. One might say that was the normal state of affairs. (No pun intended)

    You bring up fathers but it seems to me that demanding childcare is the solution. Merely suggesting that there are men who are irresponsible and stay in their parents basement is beside the point. That happens now. Getting the State out of the marriage business probably wouldn’t affect that. And no one is saying there wouldn’t be legal unions. Just that the unions wouldn’t be marriage.

  32. The plot thickens. LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah announced that it will help draft legislation to grant “certain” civil rights to gays in Utah. Those rights are precisely the ones the church mentioned that it has no objection to. There is even a reference to Elder L. Whitney Clayton stating that the LDS church does not oppose ‘civil union or domestic partnerships.”

    Equality Utah executive director Mike Thompson asked the LDS Church to continue “its willingness to engage in political issues” by stepping in to help.
    “Is the LDS Church willing to assign a member of its Presidency of the Seventy to lead church efforts to secure these rights, just as it did with Proposition 8?” he asked. And, he continued, “will the First Presidency draft a letter to Utah Latter-day Saints in support of rights and protections for gay couples … [and] ask for this letter to be read to all Utah congregations on a specified date,” as it did in California?

  33. Clark, like I said in my post, before the state started regulating marriage the church (singular) served the same function. That was during a period of religious hegemony. In order for the church to perform the same function today, you’d have to have the same religious hegemony. Which, I’m pretty sure, most people don’t want.

    Demanding child care is the answer? How well does that work now with the many fatherless children? Of course there are already many kids born out of wedlock. Making marriage solely a church thing, something only very religious couples would do rather than something that most people in the common culture plan to do when they grow up, would certainly decrease marriage rates and increase illegitimacy. Fatherless kids cause all sorts of social problems. Privatizing marriage would expand those problems out of the inner cities and into the general population.

  34. When the church’s Leviticus sentiments clash with its Beatitude sentiments, it seems Leviticus wins. But I voted to not force my will upon my ideological enemies, and I don’t feel guilty about it. Probably ought to repent about that.

    Compared to Temple marriage, isn’t civil marriage pretty much the same as shacking up?

  35. Ultimately, this comes down to a conflict between two sets of civil liberties. When our laws were more completely based on prevailing moral standards, there was not such a stark contrast between the two sets of “rights”. Now, however, the rights of gays to marry is set against the right to freedom or religion and free speech. I have no idea how this gets resolved but at some point someone will have to decide which rights prevail.

    The logical conclusion in my view would be that both sets of rights have to coexist but the gay lobby will not allow what it considers to be hate speech to be protected speech just as the Church will not allow same sex marriage. I personally think that the Church would not fight the marriage issue so hard if the threat of additional action were not there. For example, if speech and the prerogatives of the church to handle the gay issue as it sees fit were guaranteed (for example, LDS Social Services would be permitted to exclude same sex couples from consideration in adoption proceedings).

  36. Geoffrey’s post above is a perfect example of the dangers of the Church’s involvement in political causes. Because the Church has thrown their support behind an issue, members automatically accept all the propoganda as the truth. The vague ideal of “protecting the family” becomes convoluted into “the other side is trying to hurt the Church, corrupt our kids, and force us to do evil.” The political contest now becomes a fight between good and evil, instead of a debate about what public policy will provide the greatest benefit to society.

  37. Seldom’s post above is a perfect example of not understanding the post that Seldom is commenting on. I had to go and view and read the propaganda Seldom is referring to to even know what they are talking about. I got to the conclusion in my post above all by myself. But if you ever wondered whether there was indeed a conflict between the rights of different groups and individuals, take a look at how those that contributed to Prop 8 in CA are being summarily deprived of their right to free speech etc.

  38. First, this site’s aficionados will readily see me as a new commenter. Second, I enjoy reading this forum (oops, blog) because it attracts comments/dialogue from all sides.

    My comment is in response to comments #6 and #10, referring to the belief that we, as faithful saints would do well to follow the “brethren.” In fact, must follow!

    To quote what #6 shared…
    “Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters, in the months and years ahead, events are likely to require each member to decide whether or not he will follow the First Presidency. Members will find it more difficult to halt longer between two opinions. President Marion G. Romney said, many years ago, that he had ‘never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional or political life.’

    While such a belief and principle is very important to the essential need for followership in any community such as ours, it is also problematic if applied exactly as stated. We are taught to believe that the source of the “counsel of the Authorities of the Church” is a living God. However, especially in the areas of civil rights, their counsel has continually changed (and adapted) as the culture around us (at least in the U.S.) changed.

    This is clearly seen even if one’s only source is from reading the current series of priesthood/relief society manuals drawn from (edited) writings and speeches of our past prophets. In short, I will just declare my point (rather than go on for pages supporting it): All the progress we, as Mormons, have made in how we teach and act with regard to the equality and rights of blacks and women, and gays, has come from the wider culture’s affect on us, not from the GAs or prophets! They have followed, not led! Why was it OK for past prophets of God (Brigham Young and John Taylor, to name just two) to be racists, but not for Kimball and Hinckley? Did God stop being a racist? Did He change, or did our prophets and other leaders just reflect the beliefs and attitudes/ (truths?) they were learning from the wider culture?

    We now–finally–have/teach (especially relative to our pre-1940 leaders) respect and equality for blacks and women. We are also no longer referring to homosexuals as mentally ill deviants that are an “abomination” in God’s eyes–so we are making progress in that area also.

    The point is: conscience trumps sustaining! Sure, poor Brigham was a racist–as was his culture–but he taught many truths also; such as: (paraphrasing) Study it out in your mind, come to your own testimony, don’t follow blindly.

  39. Geoffrey, LDS Social Services is open in MA and doesn’t have to handle gay adoptions. It’s a non-issue. So, for that matter are Catholic adoption agencies; the Boston Diocese excluded–but not because they would be forced to handle gay adoptions; it’s a long story that has more to do with the unwillingness of the Boston Catholic Diocese to admit that it had lost considerable power (do to, well, you know) than anything else.

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