The Church and Prop 8

What is California Proposition 8?

In 2008, California Proposition 8, also known as the California Marriage Protection Act, proposed that "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."[1] The proposition passed, with 52% voting yes and 48% voting no.[2] However, the United States District Court in Northern California ruled the proposition unconstitutional in 2010.[3] In 2015, with the United States Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriage became legal throughout the United States.[4]

What does the Church have to do with it?

In 2008, the Church mounted a state-wide campaigning effort to support Proposition 8.[5]

Isn’t the Church getting involved in politics against the separation of "church and state"?

Possibly. It depends on who you ask. The dividing line between church and state has been litigated and debated since the founding of the United States.[6] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a policy that it will get involved in legislation related to moral issues,[7] but it does not support or endorse specific political parties or candidates.[8]

Okay, but isn’t the Church supposed to be politically neutral?

No, not in all things. Church leaders have long defined “political neutrality” as disengagement from partisan politics, not disengagement from all electoral issues.[9] Non-profit entities, such as the Knights of Columbus,[10] the United Way,[11] and the Southern Poverty Law Center,[12] often become involved in issue-specific political campaigning efforts.[13]

How much money did the Church spend on supporting Prop 8?

The Church did not spend money directly on Prop 8, but it did spend approximately $190,000 worth of staff time, communications, and infrastructure on the campaign.[14] Protect Marriage, which served as the organizational umbrella for the major pro-Prop 8 institutions, estimated that Church members contributed $20 million dollars in support of Proposition 8.[15] 

Did they spend more on Prop 8 than they spent on humanitarian efforts?

No. The Church reported that it spent the equivalent of $190,000[16] on Proposition 8, whereas in 2007 they reported humanitarian aid donations that appear to be significantly more than that, including over 60,000 wheelchairs and providing over 9,000 people with free vision care, extensive hurricane relief for Indonesia, neonatal resuscitation training in 23 countries, and clean water projects.[17]

Was the Church the largest donor supporting Prop 8?

No. The largest institutional donor was the Catholic-run Knights of Columbus, with a contribution of over $1.4 million dollars.[18] The next largest donor was Fieldstead and Company, an evangelical-run philanthropy known for its hunger relief and education-based donations.[19]

But were Latter-day Saints, collectively, the largest donors to supporting Prop 8?

Yes, probably. Demographic data wasn't collected on donors, so there is no way to know which group, collectively, donated the most. But Protect Marriage estimated that Latter-day Saints contributed half of the $40 million dollars raised for the measure.[20]

What did the Church ask members to do to support the campaign?

In June 2008, the Church asked members to “do all you can . . . by donating of your means and time.”[21] Church leaders asked members to blog, make phone calls, and canvas neighborhoods.[22]

Did the Church utilize missionaries in California to campaign?

No, but Church opponents implied otherwise. The Campaign Courage Issues Committee (CCIC) released an attack ad against the Church depicting two missionaries invading the home of a lesbian couple to seize their wedding rings and tear up their marriage license.[23]

What specific actions did the Church take during this campaign?

The Church used Church services, such as making announcements related to Prop 8 in sacrament meetings,[24] putting on firesides about Prop 8,[25] and having Church members participate in phone banks.[26]

Did the Church utilize church buildings for the campaign?

To an extent. They used Church meeting times for Prop. 8-related addresses and for the dissemination of organizing plans.[27]

Did they violate any laws?

Yes, they failed to report some portion of their non-monetary contributions and had to pay a $5,539 fine.[28] Depending on the point of view, this could be seen as either a clerical error or an attempt at evading the 501c3 tax laws.

Did they jeopardize their tax-exempt status?

No. The Church was well within the guidelines set for non-profit participation in issue-based political campaigning.[29]

Were members of the Church that didn’t support Prop 8 subject to Church discipline?

Yes and no. Church leadership allowed for personal disagreement on Prop 8 that did not lead to public attacks on the Church's legitimacy. For example, Morris Thurston, an Orange County attorney, challenged Church attorneys' legal arguments made without Church discipline.[30] However, at times, Church members whose disagreement led to full-scale advocacy against the Church's position and legitimacy faced disciplinary actions.[31]

Were Church members targeted by people that opposed Prop 8?

Yes, to some extent. Some people lost their jobs.[32] A few Prop 8 opponents produced an online map showing the exact locations of every Prop 8 donor in the state.[33]

Were Church buildings vandalized?

Yes. In November 2008, following the election, vandals damaged several churches, Latter-day Saint and Roman Catholic, in Utah and California.[34] In one instance, someone left a burning Book of Mormon by a temple.[35]

Is it true that white powder in an envelope was sent to Church headquarters because of Prop 8?

Yes, they were sent white powder, and yes, it was probably because of Prop 8.[36] This occurred in November of 2008 however, it turned out to not be a biological weapon or toxic. The Knights of Columbus, the largest financial donor to Proposition 8, also received an envelope with a similar white powder delivered to their headquarters.[37]

On November 14, the First Presidency called upon “those who have honest disagreements on this issue to urge restraint upon the extreme actions of a few.”[38]

Some People Say . . .

"The Church just exercised their First Amendment rights."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Non-profits are legally allowed to participate in politics.

  • The Church did not spend much cash on the effort, but it did mobilize its resources to pass Prop 8.

  • Church members donated large sums of money to the cause.

  • Opponents of Prop 8 retaliated against the Church and its members.

  • The Church violated a reporting rule and paid a fine.

Our Take

For many people, this is not a topic that will have satisfying answers. With the mix of political and social issues at play, there’s not really a comfortable place to land.

Did the Church overstep its bounds by getting involved in this highly charged political issue? Was the Church doing the right thing to ask its members to mobilize and vote a particular way? These are difficult questions, and they may not have clear answers.

But one question that is answerable is whether the Church can legally participate in politics and influence policy. Since the Church is a non-profit, and non-profits can participate in politics that affect their interests, the Church was within legal bounds to campaign for Prop 8.

The Church doesn’t usually give direction on how to vote (though in this case, it did), but it does encourage members to be politically active. Though faithful Church members may disagree on how the Proposition 8 situation should have been handled, each should remember to respect and love those on every side of political or social discussions.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Charlie M
    Yeah I don't think this was an awesome move by the Church. I think there are better ways to uplift society or influence policy that doesn't involve overtly political campaigning.
Footnotes