As surprising as it sounds, for recent marriage equality victories, LGBT Americans may have to thank, among others, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That's right: The Mormon Church, one of the key forces behind California's 2008 ballot measure Proposition 8, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court this week, has largely sat out latter-day state-level battles over same-sex marriage rights.
"It does seem, in the last few rounds, that the Mormon hierarchy has stepped back," says Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which works to advance marriage equality nationwide.
In the campaign to pass Prop. 8, which amended the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage, the hierarchy exhorted its followers to join the fight, and they did in droves. Proponents of the measure estimated that Mormons contributed half of the $40 million raised to promote Prop. 8 and made up 80% to 90% of the early volunteers who went door to door to drum up support.
But last year, as voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State upheld marriage equality laws approved by legislators and Minnesota turned back an anti-equality constitutional amendment, Mormons were pretty much absent from the fight. That was also the case this year, when Minnesota came back by legalizing same-sex marriage, as did Delaware and Rhode Island.
In these recent campaigns, "the position of the church clearly has been to take no position," says Mitch Mayne, a gay Mormon who is executive secretary in the ecclesiastical leadership of the LDS Church in San Francisco. "By saying nothing, they're saying quite a bit -- that they're out of the business of taking a public policy position on marriage equality."
The states that have recently embraced marriage equality have a relatively small Mormon population -- less than 2% of their total, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But so does California, where Mormon money and volunteers had such an impact, indicating that many out-of-staters were involved. LDS members were also major funders of anti-marriage equality initiatives in Hawaii in 1998 and Arizona in 2008, two states where their concentration is somewhat higher says Fred Karger, a California-based gay political activist who sought the Republican presidential nomination last year and has often criticized Mormons over their work against equal marriage rights.
LDS doctrine remains staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage -- the leadership issued a statement on this week's Supreme Court rulings saying, "The church remains irrevocably committed to strengthening traditional marriage between a man and a woman, which for thousands of years has proven to be the best environment for nurturing children." And the church calls on gay and lesbian Mormons to be celibate. So what's behind the shift where public policy is concerned? Is it a reaction to what Karger calls "a black eye, public relations-wise," that the church suffered due to its earlier anti-LGBT efforts, or a genuinely kinder, gentler attitude?
"There's both the cynical and the faithful view that one could take on this," says Spencer Clark, executive director of Mormons for Equality, a group of Mormon laypeople who work, independent of the church, for LGBT causes such as marriage equality and antidiscrimination protections.
"I think that LDS Church leaders realize the difficult position they're in and the shifting tide of opinion they face both publicly as well as within the church," he explains. "We're a missionary faith that is very concerned about continued growth, and when people are leaving the fold or refusing to hear the church's message because of its position on homosexuality and opposition to LGBT rights, there's no question in my mind that fact resonates with the folks in Salt Lake City. Gay Mormons are increasingly visible in our families and congregations, and we're witnessing more straight Mormons standing up in their defense. In this climate, the church simply can't be as strident as it was in 2008."
Some of those straight Mormons are famous, such as entertainer Marie Osmond, who has a lesbian daughter and has spoken out for equal rights, while some other members of her family remain activists against LGBT equality; Harry Reid, the U.S. Senate majority leader; and Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor, U.S. ambassador, and Republican presidential hopeful. And in 2012 the most prominent Mormon in the U.S. was the man who did win the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, and that had something to do with the Mormon retrenchment on anti-LGBT politicking.
"In 2012 the church did effectively sit things out, due in no small part to the risk of looking active in conservative politics while Romney was on the ballot," says Clark. Karger, coming from a less Mormon-friendly perspective, says essentially the same thing.
"This year," Clark adds, "we've seen the LDS Church start speaking up more against marriage equality, but primarily through official letters to legislatures in a few states and countries. Perhaps there is some behind-the-scenes lobbying too, but no attempts to organize at the grassroots."
Despite the faith's official position on homosexuality, there is a growing grassroots Mormon movement to support and accept LGBT people. There were Mormon contingents in 18 LGBT Pride parades in 2012, and LDS-identified groups are expected to march in even more this year, according to Mormons for Equality. In addition to that group, pro-gay organizations of church members include Mormons Building Bridges and Affirmation: Gay and Lesbian Mormons. There are blogs and conferences for LGBT-embracing Mormons.
A group organized by Mormons for Equality and others rallied in March at the Utah state capitol to support an LGBT nondiscrimination bill, which did not pass but advanced further than similar legislation ever had. Back in 2009, Salt Lake City adopted a similar municipal measure, which even had official church backing, with a spokesman saying the church believes in "treating people with respect even when we disagree -- in fact, especially when we disagree," although he also noted that the ordinance, covering employment and housing, did not "do violence to the institution of marriage."
More recently, just this month one of the hits at San Francisco's Frameline gay film festival was a short documentary called Families Are Forever, about a California Mormon couple who went from campaigning for Prop. 8 to fully accepting their gay son.
This phenomenon in the Mormon grassroots may be due in part to the Prop. 8 fallout, and not just from a public relations standpoint. "It's almost as if in our attempt to nail shut the Pandora's box of gay marriage, we're blown the lid off the whole thing," says Mayne. While Prop. 8 pitted members of Mormon families against each other and left wounds "that may never heal," he says, it also "activated another side of Mormon culture," those who want equality for their loved ones.
"We have room to improve," Mayne adds. "I'm just so hopeful that the LGBT community will open their hearts and give us the chance we did not give them in 2008." Both he and Clark note that the LDS Church holds that God continues to make revelations to the faithful, so there could even be a shift in church doctrine regarding LGBT people. And where public policy is concerned, it does preach obedience to civil authorities.
Wolfson welcomes the apparent Mormon shift in public policy activism and hopes it continues: "The proof will be in the pudding ... but it does seem to be heading in a good direction." But there are many other factors in the growing nationwide embrace of LGBT equality. "The general movement within the public is a better understanding of who gay people are, declining opposition, and greater support," says Wolfson. A Freedom to Marry study, he says, showed "increased support across every religious group in the country," with laypeople sometimes far more progressive than clergy and leaders.
Karger notes that "other religious groups are not as organized" as Mormons have been politically. "Catholics are the next line of defense" in religious opposition to marriage equality, he says, but he points out that many Roman Catholics in America differ with church hierarchy on such matters.
Even with dwindling religious opposition to LGBT equality, Wolfson adds, the credit for advances on the public policy front -- and perhaps for driving that decline in religious opposition -- should rest primarily with LGBT activists.
"The number 1 reason we've racked up so many successes," he says, "is that we stepped up our work and made a strong and effective case. We've touched hearts and minds." But it's certain that some of those hearts and minds belong to Mormons, Roman Catholics, and people from other faiths with a less than LGBT-friendly history.