Utah’s selective application of religious freedom

The following op-ed, written by our vice president DJ Schanz, was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

The sounding call of religious freedom and the importance of protecting it have been fervently preached and advocated here in Utah — both in churches on Sunday and in the Capitol during recent legislative sessions. This important subset of individual rights is absolutely important.

Religious groups in our state have provided much in the way of valuable discourse designed to protect religious freedom. Many would argue that this insistence stems from the unique history of persecution and hostility faced by many of our pioneer ancestors.

The Mormon tradition of strong support for religious liberty began with the LDS Church’s founder. Joseph Smith once said, “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul — civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race.”

These themes are publicly embraced by many church members today, being at the heart of Mormonism. The 11th Article of Faith states, “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”

Unfortunately, one’s actions can easily fall short of the ideal to which they aspire. So, too, with claiming to support religious freedom.

Those in the halls of Utah’s government and the corridors at church may honor religious rights with their lips, but their hearts are sometimes far from it. In our state, polygamists — a small religious minority — are still persecuted by many of the most vociferous advocates of religious freedom.

For many devout believers in Utah, polygamy is a central tenet of their faith. The desire to ensure that marital bonds endure into eternity with all of those persons they wish through a religious ceremony and sacrament is a critical component of this faith. However, the practice of plural marriage to most in the state is merely an unsavory reminder of a bygone era and history—particularly, and paradoxically, to many ardent, vocal advocates of religious freedom.

In the 2017 legislative session, Rep. Mike Noel sponsored and Gov. Gary Herbert signed House Bill 99, reinforcing Utah’s laws against the practice and strengthening the ability to prosecute, as felons, those who religiously marry and live with multiple partners. If polygamists were instead merely promiscuous people having open sexual relations with different partners out of wedlock, there would be no legal threat; adultery and fornication are unenforceable misdemeanors. Yet when a solemn religious commitment is made, cohabitation becomes a felony. The irony can’t be lost on even the densest of folk.

This recent legislative battle highlighted numerous stories of religious polygamists seeking to be left alone. Unlike some situations that involve abuse, these families are loving and supportive of each spouse and child. They should be able to openly practice their religion and lifestyle without being turned into felons, nor should they be compelled to relocate from our state and into the shadows by fear of prosecution. While these antiquated anti-bigamy laws are rarely prosecuted, the worry that they will be arbitrarily enforced is always lurking for these families—especially since many polygamists have family members who have been incarcerated for living their religion in this fashion.

Until 1975, it was technically legal to kill a Mormon in Missouri according to the extermination order of 1838 signed by Gov. Lilburn Boggs. In 1976, Missouri Gov. Kit Bond rescinded the order, “Expressing on behalf of all Missourians our deep regret for the injustice and undue suffering which was caused by the 1838 order.”

This state repealed a never-used, hateful and discriminatory legal authority, sending a clear message: All religious faiths are free to practice in Missouri, including Mormons. Utah should follow suit by decriminalizing consensual polygamy while retaining strong laws against any situation involving abuse.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution helps protect speech — even that which is deemed unsavory or unpopular by some. The same should hold true with religious liberty. Protecting those whose minority voices and practices are easily trodden under by majority vote should concern all religious practitioners in the state.

Let’s be consistent in standing up for religious freedom — including and especially for those whose practices we may disagree with, lest a majority vote one day turn on us and our religious observances as well.