Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints surprised many Tuesday when they announced their support for the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill enshrining protections for marriage equality that cleared a key procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday. This bill, the church stated, “includes appropriate religious freedom protections while respecting the law and preserving the rights of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,” and it is therefore “the way forward” for the nation to address the topic.
Observers correctly noted the seismic departure from the Mormon Church’s traditional staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. From the 1990s through the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision legalizing LGBTQ marriage across America, Latter-day Saints were at the forefront of the fight to maintain the “traditional” definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
But this new statement is less surprising when viewed in the context of evolving LDS thinking over the past decade. Even as it has tried to acknowledge the changing broader cultural circumstances, the church has also battled to protect the right to vigorously police boundaries around gender and sexuality for its members.
The Mormon Church’s organized opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage originated in the wake of its successful contribution to the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. This activism earned Mormons a place in the ascendant religious right. It also proved the church’s ability to mobilize over “moral” issues in a way that flexed its cultural influence without explicitly aligning with a political party. The campaign laid the groundwork for future incursions into legal battles over what the LDS Church deemed “traditional” gender roles, which had become increasingly central to the faith’s identity since World War II. Latter-day Saints leaders had bought into the conservative myth — cultivated in the culture wars — that defending these principles was crucial to society’s future, and they were also interested in entrenching patriarchal power.
With these lessons freshly enshrined, the church appointed Dallin H. Oaks, a conservative Utah Supreme Court justice who many expected would be Ronald Reagan’s next pick for the U.S. high court, as a new apostle in 1984. Oaks almost immediately drafted a memo arguing that “the interests at stake in the proposed legalization of so-called homosexual marriages” were “sufficient to justify a formal Church position and significant efforts in opposition.” Forfeiting heterosexual unions as the heart of their culture would result in societal decay and rampant impropriety, while destroying the foundation of conservative values, he argued.
Over the next three decades, the Mormon Church dedicated substantial resources, time and words to opposing same-sex marriage throughout the United States. For example, in 1995, the church was engaged in the legal fight in Hawaii over the issue when its leaders released “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a quasi-canonical manifesto clarifying their belief that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.”
The apex of this battle came in 2008 when the church invested heavily in supporting California’s Proposition 8, a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban LGBTQ unions. Though the church had already been involved in over a dozen state initiatives by then, the California episode was a dramatic escalation: Observers estimated that while Latter-day Saints accounted for only 2 percent of the state’s population, they contributed around half of the $40 million spent on the campaign and 80 to 90 percent of the volunteer work. The faith’s organizational skills helped secure the amendment’s passage.
But Proposition 8 proved to be the church’s final victory against LGBTQ marriage. The political winds shifted quickly, and by 2015, Obergefell legalized LGBTQ unions everywhere.
By that point, Latter-day Saints leaders recognized the changing landscape and stopped supporting the legislative measures they had pushed for decades. The church’s hierarchy recognized that changing public opinion extended to their own members: One recent study found that 58 percent of active Saints now believe same-sex unions should be legal and accepted.
But that didn’t mean the church began supporting LGBTQ marriage. Instead, it decided to cede the broader legal terrain to cement its control over those within its fold. It began pursuing two distinct, yet closely related, initiatives: first, a push to carve out legal exemptions to equality laws under the umbrella of “religious liberty” and second, to reaffirm internal boundaries regarding their members’ sexuality. In 2015, the Church supported a bill heralded as the “Utah compromise” that LDS leaders claimed protected LGBTQ individuals while safeguarding the rights of religious institutions. These rights included exempting institutions like Brigham Young University from implementing policies enforcing LGBTQ equality, as well as assuring the church’s tax-exempt status. In the following years, the church also supported an LGBTQ -nclusive hate crimes law as well as a ban on conversion therapy.
Leading this new emphasis was Oaks, who was elevated to the First Presidency in 2018. He adopted the language of “religious liberty,” which conservative religious leaders had begun using to reaffirm the privileges of traditional, and often powerful, institutions.
In this context, support for the Respect for Marriage Act is less surprising. The bill contains plenty of exemptions for religious groups, making it the type of moderate compromise that Oaks has prioritized. And the church’s support has been a PR boon. Equality Utah, which has worked tirelessly for LGBTQ rights in the state, called the church’s decision an attempt to “discover common ground on laws that support the strengthening of all families.”
But the church’s newfound willingness to accept political compromise over the last half decade has remained conjoined with a desire to reaffirm the faith’s cultural boundaries on sexuality. If the “world” was going to embrace the queer community, it was even more important for the church to draw a clear contrast. Only months after Obergefell, the church introduced an extreme policy that categorized “same-gender marriage” as an act of “apostasy” that necessitated disciplinary council, as well as a prohibition on children of LGBTQ parents from receiving salvific ordinances like baptism. These policies were widely panned and resulted in a flood of resignations from the church. One study found that as many as 60 percent of Mormon millennials opposed the new rules. Church leaders eventually rescinded the policies in 2019. In a rare admission of cultural influences, Oaks confessed that the retraction was in part “to reduce the hate and contention so common today.”
Even so, the church has remained committed to halting its members from embracing non-heterosexuality. Its anxiety has only heightened as support for LGBTQ rights has grown among the faith’s younger generation. In 2021, after several high-profile incidents at BYU — including a valedictorian using his graduation speech to pronounce that he was “proud to be a gay son of God” and dozens of students lighting the school’s famous mountainside Y with rainbow colors — popular apostle Jeffrey Holland chastised BYU faculty members for “supporting ideas that many of us feel are contradictory to gospel principles.” He hoped to hear “a little more musket fire” from professors in promoting “the doctrine of the family and defending marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Although Holland used the phrase metaphorically, it was a dangerous charge in an era of rising right-wing violence.
While this demand might seem to contradict support for the Respect for Marriage Act, the two initiatives are actually interdependent: The faith is willing to make legal concessions only insofar as it is granted religious exemptions that enable cultural retrenchment. Agreeing not to oppose LGBTQ civil rights secures the space required for policing internal boundaries. Even the church’s statement supporting the new bill reaffirms that its doctrine “related to marriage between a man and a woman … will remain unchanged”; what has changed is that church leaders are no longer dedicated to imposing those same priorities on non-Mormons.
The question remains whether the church’s calculated compromise will be enough to maintain the loyalty and dedication of its members. Younger believers have proved to be more flexible in institutional allegiances, more liberal on social issues and more pliable on key doctrines. This indicates that LGBTQ rights may yet become a driving wedge for the church’s future long after the legality of same-sex marriage has been decided.