TL:DR – Church leaders were concerned about gay marriage many years before the legal battles began in Hawaii. Looking at First Presidency statements and general conference addresses from the early 1990s, it becomes clear the 1995 Family Proclamation was compiled from arguments addressing gay marriage. The Proclamation wasn’t necessarily a legal document, but it was clearly intended for use by the church and its members to promote traditional families in private and public spheres.
Elder Oaks’ recent general conference address brought the 1995 declaration, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, back into the spotlight (is it ever really far from it?). While there are many fascinating posts discussing the background of the Family Proclamation (see here, here, here, and here), none fully cover what I find helpful to understand its historical context.
Oaks was unusually candid about the creation of the Proclamation:
The inspiration identifying the need for a proclamation on the family came to the leadership of the Church over 23 years ago. It was a surprise to some who thought the doctrinal truths about marriage and the family were well understood without restatement.8 Nevertheless, we felt the confirmation and we went to work. Subjects were identified and discussed by members of the Quorum of the Twelve for nearly a year. Language was proposed, reviewed, and revised. Prayerfully we continually pleaded with the Lord for His inspiration on what we should say and how we should say it. We all learned “line upon line, precept upon precept,” as the Lord has promised (D&C 98:12).
During this revelatory process, a proposed text was presented to the First Presidency, who oversee and promulgate Church teachings and doctrine. After the Presidency made further changes, the proclamation on the family was announced by the President of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley.
We get some important timing in this description. The need for the proclamation came to the attention of church leadership over 23 years ago. That gives us a target date of 1994. So what were the big-ticket items drawing the attention of church leaders? Well, Elder Packer announced his big three concerns just the previous year: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.”
Typically when we talk about the early 1990s, we point to the September Six as representing the biggest headaches for church leaders. That was when six feminists and/or academics were formally disciplined in September 1993 (five excommunicated, one disfellowshipped). The crackdown had a chilling effect on Mormon academic and feminist communities for years afterwards. Several months prior to her September excommunication, Lavina Fielding Anderson wrote an in-depth Dialogue article chronicling two decades worth of interactions between church leaders and the Mormon intellectual community (including feminists). I recommend that article to anyone interested.
While responses to Mormon feminist concerns foreshadow phrasing and concepts in the Family Proclamation (see, for example, Elder Ballard’s 1993 address “Equality though Diversity”), neither feminism nor academia seemed to play pivotal roles in the creation of the document. That badge of honor belongs to gay marriage.
Background on Gay Marriage Concerns
Let’s back up. Church leaders have been concerned about gay marriage at least since the 1970s and 1980s with the Equal Rights Amendment fight. In March 1980, they published a long Ensign article, “The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue.” In that piece, a listed objection to the ERA was the risk of gay marriage:
9. What would be the impact of the ERA on homosexual marriages?
In hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Paul A. Freund of Harvard Law School testified: “Indeed if the law must be as undiscriminating concerning sex as it is toward race, it would follow that laws outlawing wedlock between members of the same sex would be as invalid as laws forbidding miscegenation [interracial marriages]” (Senate Report 92–689, p. 47).
Passage of the ERA would carry with it the risk of extending constitutional protection to immoral same-sex—lesbian and homosexual—marriages. The argument of a homosexual male, for example, would be: “If a woman can legally marry a man, then equal treatment demands that I be allowed to do the same.” Under the ERA, states could be forced to legally recognize and protect such marriages. A result would be that any children brought to such a marriage by either partner or adopted by the couple could legally be raised in a homosexual home. While it cannot be stated with certainty whether this or any other consequence will result from the vague language of the amendment, the possibility cannot be avoided.
But the ERA was eventually defeated, so the church didn’t have anything to worry about, right? Well… leaders still recognized the fight over gay marriage wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
In August 1984, only a few months after being sustained as a new apostle, Oaks presented a memorandum to church leaders titled “Principles to Govern Possible Public Statement on Legislation Affecting Rights of Homosexuals.” As a recently resigned Utah Supreme Court justice, his legal expertise was valuable. Of course, this memorandum was leaked online many years later.
In the 21-page memo, Oaks emphasized the importance of differentiating between the “condition” of homosexuality versus the “practice” of homosexuality (foreshadowing the future distinction of attraction versus behavior.) He also discussed potential legalization of gay marriage, whether through constitutional amendment, legislative action, or court decision. Oaks concluded,
In my opinion, the interests at stake in the proposed legalization of so-called homosexual marriages are sufficient to justify a formal Church position and significant efforts in opposition. Such a position could take the following points, which are stated here in secular terms appropriate for public debate on proposed legislation…
(1) We speak in defense of the family, which is the bulwark of society.
(2) The legal rights conferred on marriage partners are granted in consideration of the procreative purpose and effects of a marriage between a man and a woman. (Even marriages between men and women who are past child-bearing years serve this procreative purpose, since they are role models for the younger, child-bearing couples.)
(3) Cohabitations between persons of the same sex do not meet the time-honored definition and purposes of “marriage” and therefore should not qualify for the legal rights and privileges granted to marriage.
(4) One generation of homosexual “marriages” would depopulate a nation, and, if sufficiently widespread, would extinguish its people. Our marriage laws should not abet national suicide.
The first point obviously has the most relevance for the Family Proclamation, created eleven years later: “We speak in defense of the family, which is the bulwark of society.”
In May 1991, three same-sex couples sued the state of Hawaii for denying them marriage licenses in Baehr v. Lewin (later Baehr v. Miike). Just as predicted, the claim was based on sex discrimination, not sexual orientation. In October of that year, the suit was dismissed by a trial court and promptly appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court. The First Presidency swiftly responded by issuing a November 1991 letter to all members of the church. The first part reads like a proto-Family Proclamation:
Standards of Morality and Fidelity
We call upon members to renew their commitment to live the Lord’s standard of moral conduct. Parents should teach their children the sacred nature of procreative powers and instill in them a desire to be chaste in thought and deed. A correct understanding of the divinely appointed roles of men and women will fortify all against sinful practices. Our only real safety, physically and spiritually, lies in keeping the Lord’s commandments.
The Lord’s law of moral conduct is abstinence outside of lawful marriage and fidelity within marriage. Sexual relations are proper only between husband and wife appropriately expressed within the bonds of marriage. Any other sexual contact, including fornication, adultery, and homosexual and lesbian behavior, is sinful. Those who persist in such practices or who influence others to do so are subject to Church discipline.
We remind you of scriptures that make clear the relationship between one’s thoughts and actions… There is a distinction between immoral thoughts and feelings and participating in either immoral heterosexual or any homosexual behavior. However, such thoughts and feelings, regardless of their causes, can and should be overcome and sinful behavior should be eliminated….
It took a couple years, till May 1993, before the Hawaii Supreme Court issued its decision to remand the case back to the trial court. But the Supreme Court issued a stipulation; the state needed to provide evidence that denying same-sex couples marriage licenses furthered “compelling state interests.”
In the October 1993 general conference, Elders Packer and Oaks directly addressed the importance of the family and gender roles in the Plan of Salvation. Both stated that gender existed in the preexistence, not a heretofore prominent idea. The overall wording and structure of both talks strongly foreshadowed the future Family Proclamation. At the end of “For Time and All Eternity,” Packer shared a parable of a vault and enclosed treasure. A man would hold the key to the vault (priesthood), but his second key was not enough to open a treasure chest (family). Only a woman with her own key could allow them to open it together. In the parable he mentioned those who were angry that men held two keys (feminists) as well as those who tried to “reshape the key that they had been given to resemble the other key,” implying the LGBT community. Oaks’ talk also could be seen as targeting both the feminist and LGBT communities, “We live in a day when there are many political, legal, and social pressures for changes that confuse gender and homogenize the differences between men and women.”
On February 1, 1994, the First Presidency issued a statement officially opposing what they termed “Same Gender Marriages”:
The principles of the gospel and the sacred responsibilities given us require that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints oppose any efforts to give legal authorization to marriages between persons of the same gender.
Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God to fulfill the eternal destiny of His children. The union of husband and wife assures perpetuation of the race and provides a divinely ordained setting for the nurturing and teaching of children. This sacred family setting, with father and mother and children firmly committed to each other and to righteous living, offers the best hope for avoiding many of the ills that afflict society.
We encourage members to appeal to legislators, judges, and other government officials to preserve the purposes and sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, and to reject all efforts to give legal authorization or other official approval or support to marriages between persons of the same gender.
Although there were some talks at the April 1994 general conference on the disintegration and importance of families (Packer, Perry, and Maxwell, as examples), none displayed quite the same similarity to the proclamation as Packer and Oaks’ previous addresses. But, there were other pressing concerns. In May 1994, President Ezra Taft Benson passed away.
In Hawaii, the legislature took up the gay marriage issue, and in June 1994 the governor approved Act 217, which amended the existing statute to clarify marriage as between a man and a woman. As part of that Act, a commission on “Sexual Orientation and the Law” was established to study the issue further, which stayed the trial for a couple years.
In his first general conference as president of the church in October 1994, President Howard W. Hunter talked about the family in his opening remarks:
In the ordinances of the temple, the foundations of the eternal family are sealed in place. The Church has the responsibility—and the authority—to preserve and protect the family as the foundation of society. The pattern for family life, instituted from before the foundation of the world, provides for children to be born to and nurtured by a father and mother who are husband and wife, lawfully married. Parenthood is a sacred obligation and privilege, with children welcomed as a “heritage of the Lord” (Ps. 127:3).
A worried society now begins to see that the disintegration of the family brings upon the world the calamities foretold by the prophets. The world’s councils and deliberations will succeed only when they define the family as the Lord has revealed it to be.
In that same conference, President Hunter spoke at the Priesthood Session on the roles of husbands and fathers. Again, as with the October 1993 conference addresses by Elders Packer and Oaks, the language and structure is incredibly similar to the later Family Proclamation. In his address, Elder Richard G. Scott also used phrases similar to the proclamation, beginning with, “Fundamental to the great plan of happiness and central to the teachings of the Savior is the family.” If we can trust the timing given to us by Elder Oaks, the proclamation was already in the works by this point.
Late in 1994, the church was alarmed to find out that the Hawaii attorney general “might not be willing to assert at the upcoming trial all of the known compelling state interests… which have been determined, in other jurisdictions, to be legally sufficient to justify similar legislation.” If the attorney general didn’t step up to prove the recently altered statute supporting heterosexual-only marriages furthered “compelling state interests,” there was a serious risk of gay marriage gaining a foothold.
In February 1995, local LDS church leaders (with the support of the Catholic church) filed a motion to intervene in the court case. While publicly they justified their involvement as a moral issue to deal with the “threat to families, to our children, and to our way of life in Hawaii,” that was not the legal argument they used. Church leaders argued they had an interest in the case because if same-sex marriage was legalized, a refusal to perform such a marriage would result in their state-issued marriage licenses getting revoked. The church also expressed concern that refusal to perform a same-sex marriage would result in a sex discrimination lawsuit. The church’s petition was rejected by the circuit court judge in March/April 1995 without comment. They appealed to the state Supreme Court, and that court upheld the rejection the following year, though at least they gave reasons why the concerns were unmerited.
The rejection by the circuit court came just after the death of President Hunter in March 1995, so newly installed President Gordon B. Hinckley took up the mantle of finishing the Family Proclamation. At the same time, Oaks worked on a landmark article for the October 1995 Ensign, “Same-Gender Attraction.” President Gordon B. Hinckley presented the Proclamation on September 23, 1995 at the General Relief Society Meeting (Over at Rational Faiths, Laura Compton covered Aileen Clyde and Chieko Okazaki’s thoughts on that event). At the same time, Ensign magazines were shipping out with Oaks’ article. In that piece, Oaks uses phrases and principles from the Family Proclamation to present the doctrinal case for the church’s position on LGBT issues, yet the proclamation is never specifically referenced (because it hadn’t been released at the time the magazine went to press).
When Hinckley announced the proclamation, he said it was “a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices relative to the family which the prophets, seers, and revelators of this church have repeatedly stated throughout its history.” It was a compilation of LDS beliefs about the doctrine of the family, but they didn’t have to reach back too far in history to find the material. It had already been emphasized in recent conference addresses and First Presidency statements as the church responded in real time to the threat of gay marriage.
Common perceptions of the Proclamation
A footnote to Oaks’ recent talk notes a common belief I hear among churchmembers about the Proclamation. It quotes Sister Bonnie Oscarson from a 2015 conference address: “Little did we realize then how very desperately we would need these basic declarations in today’s world as the criteria by which we could judge each new wind of worldly dogma coming at us from the media, the Internet, scholars, TV and films, and even legislators.” I’ve been in wards where some members suggest the brethren were inspired because there’s no way anyone could have predicted the gay marriage threats like Prop 8 in the 2000s. Clearly, that perception is misinformed.
The other idea I encounter (especially online) is that the Proclamation was drafted by lawyers; it’s simply a legal document. This one’s a little more tricky. It’s clear from the 1994 First Presidency statement that a doctrinal understanding of the family needed to inform members as they appealed “to legislators, judges, and other government officials to preserve the purposes and sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman…” Obviously, a clear statement of doctrine was useful for members to argue the church’s position in the public sphere.
So could the Proclamation have been drafted merely for legal efforts? Because that’s exactly how it was used when the church reentered the Hawaii court case after the state’s Supreme Court shot them down. The Proclamation was included as an appendix to the amicus curiae brief filed by the church in April 1997. But instead of arguing about marriage licenses (like in 1995), the church made two arguments in support of traditional families.
- “The Traditional Family Lies at the Heart of Society, Providing Benefits Which Can Be Realized From No Other Source”
- “Courts Have Long-Recognized that the Protection of the Traditional Family and the Benefits it Provides Constitute a Compelling State Interest”
But none of this really proves the Proclamation was written by lawyers. The legal arguments? Sure. Doctrinal statements in the appendix? I’m not sold. The ideas and phrases in the Proclamation were stated by church leaders in the years leading up to its release. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist, or a particularly skilled legal mind, to put together a basic outline. As Oaks said, the text was proposed and then revised (prayerfully) by apostles and the First Presidency. Ultimately, it was a community effort among the Brethren. (Which might explain why a certain female auxiliary leader at the time felt the document would’ve benefited from a woman’s touch.)
- Do you find the argument that the Proclamation was drafted by lawyers convincing? Why or why not?
- Do you think there were other factors besides the LGBT movement that factored into the Brethren seeing a need for the Family Proclamation? In Oaks’ most recent talk, he mentioned cohabitation and out-of-wedlock kids in addition to gay marriage. Did those play a role?
 That Dialogue article also covers the Church’s crackdown on several right-wing fringe movements towards the end of 1992 and into early 1993. I recently mentioned one of these, the Harmston group, in a different post.
 The Brethren may have also trusted Oaks on LGBT issues due to his time as BYU President in the 1970s. While there, Oaks instituted a special surveillance program to root out homosexual students. Also during Oaks’ tenure, a psychology student conducted electroshock aversion therapy on gay students as part of a dissertation project. Regardless, it’s unfortunate the apostle who took the lead on LGBT issues already had a bad history with the Mormon LGBT community.
 At the end of this memo on LGBT rights are two interesting caveats. One is Oaks warning the Brethren of the irony in using the 1878 case Reynolds v. United States in arguing that marriage should be between a man and woman, given that court case was over anti-polygamy laws. The other caveat is pertinent to the 2015 November 5th Policy. Oaks warned in that 1984 memo that in family law, someone could accuse the church that “in opposing homosexual marriages the Church was also opposing parental rights.” Last month, in a RadioWest interview with Doug Fabrizio, Gregory Prince explained this idea was a major driving force behind the exclusion policy:
[about 37:52] I’ve spoken to other legal experts, non-LDS. One in particular, Bill Eskridge, who is a professor of law at Yale law school, is gay and is considered a national authority on LGBT law. And he says, “From where I sit, these are concerns that shouldn’t even exist.” But for [the Church], somehow, there is this concern that churchmembers could come at them legally, could sue them for alienation of affection or whatever by having their kids attend church and hear things that might be different than what their gay parents believe in and live. Now, that doesn’t hold together in my mind, but apparently it does in the minds of other people. And, as I’ve talked this around, this seems to be pretty much a consensus feeling of what was driving that policy.