Is the state of Utah a theocracy?
You certainly might think so after reading an article in today's Salt Lake Tribune.
More than 80 percent of legislators are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and for the past 15 years, legislative leaders have met annually with Mormon church officials to discuss the coming year's agenda.
This year's closed-door get-together between Republican legislators and Mormon brass happened last week at North Temple, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Two weeks ago, the Democrats had their turn.
One hot topic of discussion was whether to do away with Utah's private club law, which requires every patron at a bar to pay a fee and register annually as a member of the club, or to be a guest of a member, in order to be served.
The Salt Lake Tribune reported the initial meeting as a straight news story, with the headline, "LDS Church indicates it is open to liquor law change." The newspaper reported that "church leaders told legislative leaders they like the idea of electronic verification," meaning they would support scanning patrons' driver licenses instead of requiring patrons to register as members of a club.
Anywhere else in the country, the stance of a church, synagogue or mosque would likely receive a "who cares?" or "why does it even matter?," and no news editor would be interested. But in Utah, it makes breaking news headlines.
That's because in Utah, as Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh wrote, "Any smart reporter first asks, 'Have you checked with THE CHURCH?'"
It's probably not a thought that goes through many reporters' minds in any other part of the country. And it shouldn't be that way in Utah, either.
But the Mormon church is increasingly becoming known for its political power plays, especially on the issue of gay rights, another topic of discussion at last week's meeting. The Tribune indicated that church leaders advised lawmakers to consider the hierarchy's "previous statements" regarding legal rights for same-sex couples.
LDS intervention is heavily credited for California's passage of Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that removed the right of same-sex couples to obtain civil marriages. Church members, at the hierarchy's behest, reportedly donated a majority of funds raised by the Yes on 8 campaign -- nearly $20 million -- and church members volunteered thousands of hours to support the constitutional amendment.
If the LDS church is powerful enough to get its agenda accomplished in California (where only 2 percent of the population is Mormon), it's not surprising that it can throw its political weight around in Utah. But that doesn't make the cozy church-legislature relationship right.
"It is a clear violation of American democratic principles," Americans United's Director of Communications Joe Conn told the Tribune. "The implication is that one church will have more influence than any other group in the state."
And it probably comes as no surprise that all the church leaders influencing law and politics are men. Last week's meeting with legislators was attended by church lobbyist Bill Evans; several members of the public affairs department; and Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; members for the First Quorum of the Seventy; and Bishop H. David Burton, the presiding bishop for the church.
Church spokesman Scott Trotter told the Tribune that Mormon leaders were just meeting with legislators to remind them of the church's political neutrality. If that were so, why is it that church opposition to proposed legislation leads the measure to go "directly to the round file," as the newspaper put it?
Yes, it may be true that majority of the population of the Beehive State are Mormons. But that doesn't mean that Mormon doctrines should be the law for everyone. Utah is part of the United States, a secular democratic nation that keeps church and state separate.
All groups, including religious organizations, are free to have their representatives meet with legislators to push for their perspective. Church lobbyist Evans should feel free to attend hearings on legislation such as Utah's private club law and provide his testimony on behalf of the church. But his views should count for no more than those of others who offer their opinions.
A government system in which legislative leaders rely solely on the church's approval is quite a different story.
As Walsh put it, that is a story that does belong in the newspaper -- as an unconstitutional outrage.