Mormon Secret Holy War: The Long Attack On LGBT People And Same-Sex Marriage

“History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot.”

This five-part investigative series by veteran reporter Karen Ocamb examines the Mormon Church’s decades-long history of anti-LGBT activities, and its successes and failures in exporting its religious views into the political sphere.

Uncovered documents have shed light on the LDS Church’s pattern of political dealings, which may run afoul of federal law regarding tax-exempt religious entities. Other anti-LGBT church practices have prompted mass defections from the church by moderate members distraught by the withholding of religious sacraments from same-sex-headed households.

And a mountain of evidence reveals a Faustian bargain with the Catholic Church and with evangelical Christians to thwart marriage equality in the United States and erode the First Amendment’s prohibition of the establishment of state religion. But such a religious alliance is not eternal: As evangelicals embrace President Donald Trump and failed U.S. Senate candidate and accused child predator Roy Moore of Alabama, Mormons may be exiting their alliance with Catholics and evangelicals on moral grounds.

An apocryphal Mormon prophecy is directing some Mormons to embrace a new political savior figure, a savior who would also work to eradicate the separation of church and state.

NewNowNext reached out to the LDS Church several times for comment, but was met with only a referral to their website.


To the massive audience, both in person and globally (via satellite and the Internet), of a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) general conference in October 2010, Boyd K. Packer, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, described a visit to a school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A teacher had told him a story about a boy who brought a kitten to class.

“Is it a boy kitty or a girl kitty?” one of the children asked.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s just a kitty,” said the teacher, unprepared for kitty sex ed. Finally, one boy proclaimed: “I know how you can tell.”

“How can you tell?” the teacher asked.

“You can vote on it!” the boy replied.

Packer thought it was an excellent metaphor. “You may laugh at this story, but if we are not alert, there are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change laws that would legalize immorality, as if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws and nature,” he said in his address. “History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot.”

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President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles Boyd Packer at the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on October 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

It was an interesting statement from one of the leaders of a church that very deliberately attempted to change the definition of marriage through a popular vote. In 2008, the Supreme Court of California ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage in the state was in violation of the state constitution; the effect was that California became a marriage-equality state. Shortly thereafter, anti-marriage-equality campaigners, including the LDS Church (known informally as the “Mormons”), took advantage of California’s ballot proposition system with Prop 8, which put marriage equality up to a popular vote in the state. After an ugly campaign, Prop 8 passed, removing same-sex couples’ right to marry, and until it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, no same-sex marriage licenses were granted in California.

Jessie Terwilliger, Wikicommons
Yes on Prop 8 signs on a lawn in Beaumont, Calif., November 2008

The Twin Scourges of the ERA and Homosexuality

The LDS Church had previous experience fighting immorality at the ballot box in the late 1970s, around the same time anti-gay evangelical Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority were teaming up with singer Anita Bryant to combat gay rights advanced during the post-Stonewall counterculture movement. The Church handed out petitions to members and legislators reading: “We consider the Equal Rights Amendment a nonpartisan issue and will, in the 1979 elections, vote only for those candidates who oppose ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.” The ERA was attempting to eliminate denial of civil rights based on one’s sex.

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Anita Bryant in 1978

“On its surface, the Equal Rights Amendment was very simple,” LDS member Greg Prince, Ph.D. and author of Power From On High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood, told PBS. “But somehow that had a ripple effect within Mormondom that sent a shock wave of fear to the highest level, that if this were to pass…it threatened, or was perceived to threaten, the very core of the way Mormonism is structured as a patriarchal society.” And the Church began to work to prevent ratification. Continued Prince, “You had overt activities in fundraising using the name of the church, using church facilities in some cases, that helped to defeat the amendment in those states.”

The Church also feared what it viewed as an open door to gay rights. “Passage of the ERA would carry with it the risk of extending constitutional protection to immoral same-sex—lesbian and homosexual—marriages,” the Ensign, an official periodical publication of the LDS Church, published in an unsigned February 1980 article titled “The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue.” “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.”

This political theory inspired lectures, books, and guides with explicit and dire warnings. “Amid tears of sorrow—our hearts heavy with forebodings—we see evil and crime and carnality covering the earth. Liars and thieves and adulterers and homosexuals and murderers scarcely seek to hide their abominations from our view. Iniquity abounds. There is no peace on earth,” Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told a conference in May 1980.

In 1981, the leaders issued a guide simply called “Homosexuality” in which the Church states its “unequivocal position” that “homosexuality is of grave concern” and “any rationalization of homosexuality is wrong.” “Powerful forces are seeking to establish this sinful practice as an acceptable way of life. Homosexuality in men and women runs counter to divine objectives and the intended destiny of mankind,” read the 9-page guide, provided to “help Church leaders understand and treat the problem of homosexuality.”

Although some of the Church’s positions have changed over time, this 1981 statement from the guide has not yet been rescinded: “Homosexual behavior is learned and can be overcome. To believe that immoral behavior is inborn or hereditary is to deny that men have agency to choose between sin and righteousness. The Lord has given man the freedom to make moral choices, and this agency is the cornerstone of his plan for exaltation.… It is inconceivable that—as some involved in homosexual behavior claim—[God] would permit some of his children to be born with desires and inclinations which would require behavior contrary to the eternal plan.” Those who balk are shunned. “Persons who have engaged in homosexual activities and who have not totally repented and forsaken these evil practices will not be admitted to study at or be employed by any Church university, college, school, or program,” the guide says.

The Church Gets Political in Hawaii in 1994

When the acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage came to the fore in Hawaii in the early 1990s, Mormons doubled down. “We want to help these people, to strengthen them, to assist them with their problems and to help them with their difficulties. But we cannot stand idle if they indulge in immoral activity, if they try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation. To permit such would be to make light of the very serious and sacred foundation of God-sanctioned marriage and its very purpose, the rearing of families,” said LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley in 1998 about “so-called gays and lesbians.”

The intensity of the Church’s deep and secret involvement in attempting to thwart marriage equality only came to light during the Prop 8 fight in 2008. Political blogger Dante Atkins posted a “devastating” internal LDS Church memo dated March 4, 1997, to Elder M. Russell Ballard from Elder Loren C. Dunn showing that the Church first jumped into the Hawaii fight in 1994, funneling dark money into the campaign and devising and executing political strategy.

Dunn notes: “The Hawaii issue is critical because if H.L.M. [homosexual legal marriage] were passed into law, it could force other states to accept H.L.M. on the basis of constitutional ‘full faith and credit.’ ” This idea eventually becomes California’s Proposition 22 in 2000, that outlawed not only same-sex marriage but also the recognition of gay marriages from other states. Dunn also references a survey by Richard Wirthlin, a former strategist and pollster for Ronald Reagan and a high-ranking general authority in the Church, as evidence that an anti-gay-marriage initiative is “the only route,” with two other coalition members coming together, “one of them showing promise as to raising money.”

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LDS Laie Hawaiian Temple, North Shore, Oahu

That promising coalition partner to help finance a California ballot measure was the Catholic Church, which, pre-child-sex-abuse scandals, was generally held in high regard. Dunn writes starkly. “As in Hawaii, [Wirthlin’s] survey also shows the public image of the Catholic Church higher than our Church. In other words, if we get into this, they are the ones with which to join.”

The LDS Church determined it would provide money, strategy and volunteers, but only if the Catholic Church would serve as the face of the campaign.

Building an Anti-Equality Coalition

During a 2009 news conference in Salt Lake City, LGBT rights activist Fred Karger (who would become the first openly gay presidential candidate, running as a Republican in 2012) challenged the Mormon Church for not reporting all it spent to qualify and pass California’s Prop 8. The news conference produced a surprise more important than publicity.

Karger had ferreted out Mormon donors to 2008’s Prop 8, which he posted at his website, and filed his first complaint against the Mormon Church with the California Fair Political Practices Commission on Nov. 13, 2008, shortly after Prop 8 passed. The complaint pointed to Prop 8–related activities and materials that the Church had not reported. Karger filed a supplemental complaint on Feb. 2, 2009, after the Church filed its amended campaign report on Jan. 30, 2009. At his subsequent Feb. 11, 2009, news conference, Karger called the Mormon Church’s cover-up of campaign activities “Mormongate” and asked for any tips related to Prop 8 or similar activities in other states. That afternoon, Karger met with an inside source at a nearby hotel bar. After sizing Karger up as legitimate, the source gave Karger two boxes of internal LDS documents that proved that the Church not only had been directly involved in anti-gay-marriage activities during the Hawaii battle, but had essentially written California’s Prop 22 and, Karger believed, helped establish the National Organization for Marriage.

Fred Karger at the San Diego LGBT Pride parade in 2010

The LDS Church refuted Karger’s charges, especially regarding NOM. “The church is unconcerned about Mr. Karger’s newest complaint,” said LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter. “Mr. Karger has again made claims that have no basis in fact, and this newest round of allegations follows the same pattern. As we have said before, he is entitled to his opinion but not to his own version of the facts.”

But Karger knew what he had. “These documents show how the Mormon Church is such a political machine that they singlehandedly wrote and orchestrated this initiative,” said Karger. “Prop 22—they made it happen. And that’s what’s so revealing. I was aghast at how much influence they had.”

So angered at what he found, Karger has been gathering evidence and filing state challenges ever since to prove that the tax-exempt LDS Church has run afoul of IRS guidelines regarding the time and money churches may expend in support of political campaigns; moreover, the Church used its vast holdings and hierarchy of obedience as a political action committee to orchestrate the anti-equality outcomes in both Prop 22 and Prop 8.

The Evidence

Among Karger’s evidence was a trove of communiqués. As early as Aug. 20, 1996, while still secretly fighting marriage equality in Hawaii and a month before President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, Elder Loren C. Dunn wrote a memo titled “Re: Status Update on California HLM Legislation” to Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, about a legislative effort by state Sen. Pete Knight.

“California [LDS Church] members have been organized to write and call their legislative representative to support legislation that prohibits recognition of same-sex marriage,” Dunn wrote. “If the legislation dies on the floor of the California Senate, one alternative would be to organize an initiative to bring the issue before the people of California in a general election. Judging from past initiatives, it would take about $1 million to get the necessary signatures to get the initiative on the ballot and another $2–3 million to help insure its passage.”

Dunn wrote that he and the strategist Wirthlin were “in California in order to develop names that could head a coalition established by ourselves and the Catholic Church.”

In April 1997, Knight’s legislative aide Andy Pugno asked Lynn Wardle, a law professor at the Mormon Church–owned Brigham Young University, to testify in favor of Knight’s bill. The bill was killed in committee by a 5–4 vote, but Wardle noted that several people approached him about “doing a referendum.”

In May of that year, the California Defense of Marriage leadership group, which included pollster Gary Lawrence, politico Sal Russo, and anti-gay Rev. Lou Sheldon, asked Wardle to “distill and polish the concept” of the initiative, which was favored over a constitutional amendment. In California, individuals or organizations can, with enough signatures, put an initiative on the state ballot to be put to a popular vote, even without the support of the legislator or governor.

Lawrence’s May 12 memo [page 1 and page 2] says the initiative reads simply: “Only marriage between one man and one woman is valid or recognized in California.”

A Wardle follow-up memo of May 13, 1998 [page 1 and page 2], notes a “significant victory” in Hawaii (presumably the state’s Constitutional Amendment 2, passed by popular vote, which gave the legislature the power to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples), adding that “it is not time to ‘rest on our laurels’ ” but “consolidate and complete legislative success in other states” during the 1998 election year.

Efforts in other states included a June 1998 primary ballot initiative orchestrated by the California Defense of Marriage Coalition. In preparation, on June 26, President Faust issued some “Governing Principles” for engagement to ensure “we do not go into battles by ourselves.” On Aug. 19, 1997, a letter [page 1 and page 2] from the North America West area presidency asks “Brothers and Sisters” in California to do whatever they can to help, citing “The Proclamation on the Family,” which is “central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”

“Legalizing marriage between two people of the same sex is a perversion of true marriage and threatens to undermine the concept of marriage and family, which is at the very heart of the plan of salvation,” the letter says.

The Mormon memos show that the LDS Church was crucial to the holy war on gay marriage. In a Feb. 26, 1998, memo from Pugno to Wardle, the deputy seeks counsel on the wording of the new DOMA initiative. “We urgently need you to review the proposed text,” he writes, asking about changing the wording from “one man and one woman” to “a man and a woman,” presumably to de-emphasize any association with the Church’s past history of polygamy.

That initiative eventually became California Proposition 22, “Limit on Marriages.” Proponents spent $8,422,913—almost double what the opposition spent on the campaign. Prop 22 passed on March 7, 2000, by 61% to 39% and became a template for a wave of anti-gay-marriage initiatives and legislation around the country, including Prop 8 in 2008.

Randy Thomasson, the Director of the Campaign for California Families, displays a sign used for the campaign for Proposition 22, at the San Francisco Courthouse in 2004.

Memo after memo in Karger’s collection demonstrate the ongoing political maneuvers by a faith determined to undermine equality for LGBTs. The LDS Church, at least publicly, was unfazed.

Church spokesperson Scott Trotter told The Salt Lake Tribune in March 2009 after Karger’s news conference: “The church’s position on the importance of traditional marriage has been consistent over the years.”

Karen Ocamb is a veteran LGBT journalist based in West Hollywood, Calif.