Backers of Gay Marriage Trumpet the Mormon Church's Work Against It

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- As more states take up the debate on same-sex marriage, some advocates of legalization are taking a very specific lesson from California, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dominated both fundraising and door-knocking to pass a ballot initiative that barred such unions.

With the battle moving east, some advocates are shouting that fact in the streets, calculating that on an issue that eventually comes down to comfort levels, more people harbor apprehensions about Mormons than about homosexuality.

"The Mormons are coming! The Mormons are coming!" warned ads placed on newspaper Web sites in three Eastern states last month. The ad was rejected by sites in three other states, including Maine, where the Kennebec Journal informed Californians Against Hate that the copy "borders on insulting and denigrating a whole set of people based on their religion."

"I'm not intending it to harm the religion. I think they do wonderful things. Nicest people," said Fred Karger, a former Republican campaign consultant who established Californians Against Hate. "My single goal is to get them out of the same-sex marriage business and back to helping hurricane victims."

The strategy carries risks for a movement grounded in the concept of tolerance. But the demographics tempt proponents of same-sex marriage: Mormons account for just 2 percent of the U.S. population, and they are scarce outside the West. Nearly eight in 10 Americans personally know or work with a gay person, according to a recent Newsweek survey. Only 48 percent, meanwhile, know a Mormon, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Many Mormons also acknowledge a problematic public profile that could make it difficult for them to lead the fight against same-sex marriage. A 2008 poll by Gary C. Lawrence, author of "How Americans View Mormonism: Seven Steps to Improve Our Image," found that for every American who expresses a strong liking for Mormons, four express a strong dislike. Among the traits widely ascribed to Mormons in the poll were "narrow-minded" and "controlling."

"We're upside down on our image," said Lawrence, who organized Mormon volunteers in California, where on a typical Saturday 25,000 turned out to knock on doors. "People have misperceptions of us because of ignorance, because of the history of polygamy, and because we organize quickly, which scares some people."

Mormon officials have tried to stay out of the controversy that followed the California vote, when the church's prominent role in the marriage fight became clear. A spokeswoman in Salt Lake City declined to say whether the church is involved in debates going on in states such as New Jersey and New York, except to say that leaders remain intent on preserving the "divine institution" of marriage between man and woman. The faith holds that traditional marriage "transcends this world" and is necessary for "the fullness of joy in the next life."

The church has a top-down hierarchy that answers to the First Presidency, who also holds the status of prophet. Last June, congregations were read his letter urging that "you do all you can" to pass the California initiative, known as Proposition 8. Lawrence, who like Karger worked as a Republican political consultant, professed no concern about the effort to shift the focus away from the definition of marriage.

"He is demonizing the opposition. It's Political Consulting 101," Lawrence said of Karger. "The average guy does not know the extent to which the Mormon Church was involved on Prop. 8."

The proponents' strategy is grounded in a stubborn reality: While the number of states legalizing same-sex marriage is slowly increasing -- Maine recently became the fifth -- in every case the agent of change was either a court or a legislature. Voters have rejected the idea wherever it has appeared on a ballot.

The election results track public opinion nationwide. Polls consistently show that while a majority of Americans support some legal recognition of gay unions, more want to keep marriage reserved for a man and a woman.


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