Gay activists protest Mormon church

Beyond the anger over the church's support for a gay-marriage ban in California, some seek dialogue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Upset: Protesters hold placards outside a Mormon church in Los Angeles Thursday. Church leaders supported a gay-marriage ban.
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At a rally downtown, Kevin Kopjak holds a sign that reads, "No More Mr. Nice Gay." Many in the gay community are fed up, he says, and ready "to fight the good fight."

Tens of thousands of people have turned out in California cities to protest a new voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages, and wider demonstrations are planned for this weekend.

Much of the anger rippling through the crowds has focused on the Mormons and the leaders of their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Church leaders asked members to support the ban, and they did – to the tune of more than $15 million, by one estimate.

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Now petitions are circulating that call for the LDS church's tax-exempt status to be revoked. Gay marriage supporters are also trying to organize a boycott of Utah, and have picketed Mormon temples in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City.

Even in the heat of protests, however, both sides reveal a nuanced empathy for the opposition beyond what the placards, robo-calls, and TV ads might suggest. The challenge, say some leaders and experts, is to build on that by opening up dialogue and avenues for compromise.

"I think it's really important ... not to let this become a claim that Mormons are the reason for everything that went wrong, on the one hand, or one that falls into a knee-jerk 'This is just anti-Mormonism' reaction. Because each of those are toxic," says Sarah Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on the Mormon church.

Mormons make up about 2 percent of California's population, and not all voted for the ban. Other larger demographic groups – including Catholics and African-Americans – made up more of the 'Yes' vote. But many in the gay community find the direction from church leaders, and the amount of money raised, galling.

While outsiders impute many motives to the LDS church, the obvious, important one remains religious belief. "The faith itself is based on concepts of salvation within the family and a very committed pro-natalism," says Ms. Gordon. Arguably, marriage marks the most important faith moment for a Mormon.

Given that marriage is so sacred to people like the Mormons, and that government benefits are so tied to marriage, policymakers may be able to satisfy both sides only when they disentangle the two, she says.

One suggestion for how to do that comes from Doug Kmiec, a same-sex marriage opponent who doesn't feel the issue is best handled by litigation. "Sometimes it just leaves us with broken people on both sides, which I think is where we are heading now," says Mr. Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University. Instead, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could institute a compromise, he says, with a sweep of his pen.

The deal: Get the government out of the marriage business. Couples gay and straight would get civil unions from city hall. Then, if they wanted, they could get married within a church. Religious institutions must be granted freedom to refuse marriage to anyone, and existing same-sex marriages should be considered legal.

That would be fine with Patricia Cain, a law professor at Santa Clara University and a married lesbian, only if it is the national standard and the federal Defense of Marriage Act is repealed. Otherwise, jurisdictions where civil marriage is solely for straight couples will remain.

"Equality has been my goal, not marriage," says Ms. Cain. But, "some people on both sides are very attached to the word 'marriage.' "

Dressed in his "Sunday best" black suit, George Cole joined several hundred protesters in Oakland last weekend. Years ago, when he came out to his parents, he recalls his Mormon mother cried for an hour and asked what she did wrong. He wishes the church would help reassure parents of gay children.

Mr. Cole is a member of a group called Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons, which he says has talks scheduled next year with a top church official. The group isn't asking for gay marriage in the temple, but would like to see gay members be able to marry outside the church and remain in good standing.

There are limits to dialogue, suggests Don Eaton, a regional LDS public affairs director. "The theology isn't going to change. Our understanding of them might change, although I hope that we already have a pretty good understanding – there are gay members of our congregations," he says.

The church is on record, he adds, in support of domestic partnerships – just not marriage – for same-sex couples. Cole notes that the church rejects sex outside marriage, effectively forcing gay Mormons to stay celibate singles.

Up the road from the temple, John Burke operates an LDS bookshop. He explains how his family welcomed a young man named Tim, whom he calls a son, who is gay.

"He's a [LDS] member and we love him. We just don't talk about marriage with him," says Mr. Burke. He voted yes for the ban partly because he worries homosexuality will be taught in schools. He says his 7-year-old already got such a lesson at his school – forcing a discussion about Tim that he had wanted to delay.

At the San Francisco rally, marcher David Guzman expressed ambivalence about calls to tax the LDS church. "Their religion should be able to keep [the tax exemption], but they should stay out of politics," says the ex-Mormon.

Since the LDS church says it didn't spend money itself – its members did – the church is unlikely to be penalized, says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University.

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