I once heard an NPR report about Pope John Paul II visiting a Central American nation. After a service at a huge soccer stadium, the reporter spoke with a number of people as they left the venue.
One woman, a mother with teenagers, was ecstatic after being in the same stadium as her beloved pope. When the reporter asked her about the pope’s statements during the service about birth control and contraception, her response stuck with me.
“Oh, that is what they always talk about,” she said, “but that is not why I am here.”
She did not agree, let alone pay much attention to the comments about contraception. Yet, she was still very excited and happy about seeing the pope. As a Catholic, she had heard these teachings about contraception and birth control before. Like before, she ignored those elements of the event and focused on other things. That is just what Catholic leaders talk about. It didn’t bother her or make her feel compelled to agree.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its stance on gay marriage in many ways reminds me of the Roman Catholic Church and its stance on birth control.
The Catholic Church and Birth Control
The Catholic Church is ardent in opposing birth control. While they are well known for their opposition to abortion, they also oppose the use of contraception, both birth control pills and barrier methods to birth control.
We expect the Catholic Church to preach against birth control and to oppose measures like the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act. However, the Catholic opposition to birth control is by and large socially and politically irrelevant. Even amongst Catholics, birth control is widely used and supported.
This is not to say that there aren’t many Catholics that take the Catholic teachings on birth control very seriously. Many do take them quite seriously and live those teachings.
Now, take a look at the current court procedings over the birth control mandate in the ACA. The Catholic institutions involved are not looking to do away with birth control, or even the mandate (though some did when the bill was before Congress). Instead, they are seeking accommodation. They want to be able to opt-out of the mandate on religious grounds.
Of course, part of the reason that the Catholic Church is not trying to ban birth control is that the Supreme Court settled this issue with the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut case, and unlike abortion, there is no serious effort afoot to reverse that legal ruling (though Griswold can be viewed as paving the way for Roe v. Wade). An outright ban of birth control is a legally, culturally, socially, and politically dead proposition (especially within the United States and other industrialized countries).
Opposing Gay Marriage
Gay marriage is a much newer issue in the context of American politics. It is not a settled issue, but the writing is on the wall.
The opponents of gay marriage knew this day would come. In 2004, a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling ushered in the era of gay marriage. The initial response of gay marriage opponents was to propose an amendment to the Constitution of the United States that would define marriage as between a man and a women and to elevate the provisions of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to constitutional status. DOMA legislated that the federal government would not recognize gay marriages if states recognized them and it allowed for states to also ignore the gay marriages performed in other states.
Such an amendment to the Constitution never got close to the two-thirds margin needed in either house of the U.S. Congress to be sent to the states for ratification. Even during the height of organized opposition to gay marriage (between 2004 and 2008), had Congress proposed such an amendment it still would not have been approved by 37 states. While the forces against gay marriage mirror those that blocked the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, blocking an amendment is a very different game from getting one ratified.
In proposing this amendment, the opponents of gay marriage recognized two things. First, DOMA would not stand under serious challenge because of the full faith and credit clause in the 4th article of the Constitution and because of the application of 14th amendment used by the Supreme Court in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling. Second, they recognized that the cultural wave was going against them with attitudes toward homosexuality in general shifting rapidly.
While the 2013 Hollingsworth v. Perry ruling kicked Proposition 8 back to the Circuit Court of Appeals on jurisdiction grounds, it essentially killed Prop. 8 by doing so. The United States v. Windsor ruling, released on the same day as Hollingsworth v. Perry, had a much more devastating impact on the anti-gay marriage movement because it ruled against DOMA primarily on 14th Amendment grounds rather than on federalism grounds. Instead of viewing DOMA as a violation of the full faith and credit clause of Article IV, it ruled that DOMA violated the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment. In doing so, it put doubt on any legislation or voter referendum which sought to deny marriage to gays.
We now see a growing number of U.S. District Court judges ruling against state gay marriage bans on 14th amendment grounds. These rulings are not definitive. They will be addressed at the Court of Appeals level and I have a hard time imagining that they will not eventually reach the United States Supreme Court.
Given the precedent of Lawrence v. Texas and U.S v. Windsor, state bans on gay marriage are doomed. I could be wrong and one should never be too comfortable until the nine black robes have ruled. Yet, there is room to be confident in predicting this.
When we bring public attitudes into the equation, we can see that the 2008 was the high point of the anti-gay marriage movement and 6 years out that is looking more and more like distant history.
Mormons and Gay Marriage
What does all of this legal and cultural stuff have to do with the LDS Church, let alone the birth control and the Catholic Church?
In the way that the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control no longer has legal, political, or social relevance to the issue of birth control, the LDS Church’s stance on gay marriage is no longer relevant to the issue of gay marriage itself. Mormon support for Prop. 8 made quite the splash in 2008, but this element of the cultural war is all but over. We have not quite reached Appomattox, but that is the direction we are heading.
The amicus brief filed by the LDS Church in the Kitchen v. Herbert case in support of Utah’s gay marriage ban, was not shocking at all. In fact, few things could have been more predictable and I expect to see similar briefs and statements coming from the LDS Church in the future.
Likewise, LDS Church leaders making comments about homosexuality and gay marriage at General Conference (the biannual conference of the LDS Church) will continue. There may not always be entire talks dedicated to the issue, like there has been in recent years, but the passing references and veiled digs will continue.
There is not a 1978 moment (when the Church reversed the ban on blacks holding the priesthood) coming anytime soon on this issue. I do not see it ever coming, but nobody knows. Predicting future Church behavior is a bit different from predicting the future behavior of the United States Supreme Court, but precedent is a decent indicator when it comes to both institutions.
What is the pro-gay marriage member of the LDS Church to do? Or even the Mormon just tired of the issue? Well, follow the example of the Catholic women mentioned above…and shrug. The position of the LDS Church on this issue no longer has an influence on the status of actual gay marriage. Like with Catholic groups and birth control, we are already seeing the LDS Church’s focus on gay marriage shifting from seeking to prevent it to seeking accommodation for their own beliefs.
Of course, most members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are still going to be strong opponents of gay marriage. In general, Mormons are more likely to fall in line with the hierarchy of their Church than Catholics are.
The one group left out of this scenario is gay Mormons. They are already a group heavily marginalized within LDS culture. There are efforts afoot within LDS Church to reach out to gay Mormons, particularly in areas with large concentrated gay communities. However, larger acceptance within Mormonism and the LDS Church is likely far off. We will continue to see gay Mormons, as well as others, leave Mormonism and the LDS Church for more open and accepting communities.
Mormon opposition to gay marriage will frustrate some and embolden others. Yet, we need to analyze this issue within the context of larger social trends, not just within the context of Mormonism. Watch the courts and keep an eye on the prize.