On June 23, 2022, my bodily autonomy was recognized as a fundamental constitutional right.
On June 24, 2022, it wasn’t.
But I don’t want to talk about reproductive choice or Dobbs–not exactly, anyway. Many, many people have already done that; there are already multiple posts on Wheat & Tares that address the issue, including some that specifically address Dobbs & the Church position on abortion. There are also a couple of other posts at By Comment Consent that discuss it. I’ve engaged in some of those discussions already and I really don’t want to frame up another substantive abortion debate for the comments here. (Really.)
Instead, I want to talk about how this legal upheaval–and the potential additional changes it portends, such as the elimination of the constitutional protection for gay marriage recognized in Obergefell–might impact our experience at Church. What might it mean for reproductive rights and marriage equality to be back on the table for state legislatures and, therefore, ripe for political advocacy from the Church or its members?
This matters to me because mixing politics and Church has been the worst thing to happen to my Church experience. While I disagree with the institutional Church on many issues, I’ve long felt that my local experience is pretty good and as long as I focus on Jesus and my own congregation, I can get by just fine.
But that changes when local congregations get commandeered for political fights (as happened during Prop 8) or when such fights unavoidably impact them (as happened during the Covid mask/vaccine debates). As I learned during Covid, it actually doesn’t matter much whether I oppose the Church’s official position (as with marriage equality) or I agree with it (as with masks and Covid)–it’s miserable either way. Jesus leaves the building.
As such, a major benefit of Roe / Casey and Obergefell for me has been that, although people at Church might talk about abortion (sometimes) and gay marriage (often), there was comfort in knowing that their religious beliefs and political opinions couldn’t infringe on my own reproductive rights or my friends’ and families’ marriage equality. Sure, I think some of what they say is harmful, but I and other women and my queer friends and family have been shielded from them. They can believe what they want to believe and practice the way they want to practice, but they can’t force me to do the same. (That is, by the way, exactly the point of fundamental rights–certain rights that are so fundamental that, for example, a conservative Christian minority can’t deprive a minority of those rights by imposing its own religious practices on people who believe differently.) This has made the divisions that exist in Church between pro-lifers and pro-choicers / Republicans and Democrats / pro- and anti-marriage equality much more tolerable because I don’t have to get very worked up about it. It’s largely irrelevant to my actual life.
Until now. Now that reproductive choice is an open issue again–subject to campaigning and convincing and sign-posting and legislating–my ward members’ beliefs about it are likely to impact my own reproductive rights and those of my sisters and daughters and friends (especially because I live in the Theocracy of Deseret). If gay marriage no longer receives federal protection, my brother’s marriage may not be valid in his home state; again, my ward members’ views on the issue may actually end up directly impacting my family and friends. So it’s no longer something I can just look away from or agree to disagree or live and let live. It’s very personal and it concretely impacts my own life and family.
Likewise, although people on the other side of these debates may be glad that they can influence public policy to conform to their views on abortion and gay marriage, I have to imagine that at least some of them at least still would prefer the issues not take over our Church meetings. I imagine there may also even be people out there who believe that the Church is correct in its stance on abortion and gay marriage, but that the free exercise of religion and principles of limited government mean that those things should still be legal for others who believe differently.
So, the two questions on my mind are:
- Will the Church get involved in legislative battles over abortion and gay marriage as it did for the ERA in the 70’s and gay marriage in the late 90’s and early 2000’s?
Part of me thinks (hopes?) that the Church learned a hard lesson after Prop 8–it may have won a short-term political victory, but it lost a tremendous amount of goodwill. Likewise, with Covid, even encouraging members to wear masks and get vaccinated–which should not have been particularly political to begin with–created problems for the Church with its members on the far right.
That said, the Church continues to support anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion groups domestically and abroad, and continues to file amicus briefs in opposition to LGBTQ rights in the United States. I’m not sure that Nelson cares much about public opinion on this point. While I doubt that the Church’s level of involvement will be as intense as it was during Prop 8, I can imagine it will continue issuing statements in favor of gay marriage-restrictive and anti-reproductive choice policies and that it will at least subtly encourage members to vote accordingly.
Indeed, in response to Dobbs, the Church Newsroom statement on abortion added a new paragraph to the existing language: “The Church’s position on this matter remains unchanged. As states work to enact laws related to abortion, Church members may appropriately choose to participate in efforts to protect life and to preserve religious liberty.”
Why the Church felt that it needed to give members permission to do this, I have no idea, but either way seems like encouragement to insert ourselves and our religious beliefs into these debates. But for the record, I believe pro-choice efforts are efforts to protect life (the lives of women) and preserve religious liberty (the liberty of folks who do not share Catholic / Evangelical / Mormon views on abortion and whether human life begins at conception). Somehow, though, I doubt that’s what the Newsroom means.
- Will Church members be disciplined for public advocacy and financial support to pro-marriage equality or pro-choice groups and causes?
Whether or not the Church encourages or mobilizes Church members to fight to restrict reproductive rights legislation or bans marriage equality–or tries to stay out of the fray apart from reiterating its own policy–it is certain (in fact, it is already the case) that Church members will mobilize on either side of the issues on their own initiative. The Utah Legislature–which is about 88% Mormon–has already passed a trigger law that looks strikingly similar to Church policy, and the President of the Utah Senate has noted that he would join efforts to revisit Obergefell.
On the other hand, many Church members have publicly voiced opposition to Dobbs, limitations on reproductive rights, and Justice Thomas’s suggestion that marriage equality should be revisited. I’ve actually been quite surprised at the number of active Church members–mostly women–who have been outspoken on these issues. For my part, I have given and will continue to give vocal, financial, legal, and any other support I can to fight for reproductive rights and marriage equality.
Will this get me and other pro-choice, pro-marriage equality members in trouble? I don’t know. Elder Christofferson is often quoted as saying that members won’t be punished for holding their own beliefs about gay marriage, but some leaders seem to draw the line at public advocacy. Recent changes in the vetting and retention of BYU faculty suggest that, at least for Church employment, private beliefs are enough to land you in hot water or out of a job.
My guess is that if members simply advocate that the law should not restrict people from making their own decisions about abortion and gay marriage, without specifically opposing the Church’s position as it applies to Church members own choices, they generally won’t face discipline absent some leadership roulette (although the risk of leadership roulette is real). Of course, that’s different for Church employees and potentially students at Church schools. And I think there’s an open question whether donating to a charitable organization that provides abortion funding (like Planned Parenthood or other funds that directly pay for abortions) is tantamount to “encourag[ing], pay[ing], or arrang[ing] for [elective] abortions” or what discipline (if any) would result from such actions.
Ultimately, of course, I don’t know what will happen. I am trying to be optimistic–I really can’t afford not to be. I hope that leadership recognizes the divisiveness and sensitivity of these issues and encourages congregations to keep them out of Sunday worship. But I worry that just as we’ve come out of the divisive nightmare that was the 2020 election cycle and Covid, we’re headed towards something even worse.
- Whichever side of the issues you land on, how do you feel about the possibility that reproductive rights & marriage equality may become hot(ter) topics at Church?
- Do you think the Church will get involved (within the limits of its status of a 501(c)(3), which technically prohibits political advocacy)? Do you think members who advocate for reproductive choice or gay marriage may face Church discipline?
- If you consider yourself pro-life and anti-gay marriage, do you think you should make space for alternate views in your congregation? Do you plan to do anything to do so?
- If you consider yourself pro-choice and pro-marriage equality, how do you think you’ll handle potential changes to your Church experience?