Organized religion in this country does a lot of good, but it can also cause much pain and suffering. I realized just how much when I discovered everything the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with help from the Catholic Church, had done in 2008 to take away civil rights from LGBT people in California. That’s when these two religions successfully led the effort to qualify and pass Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.
After Prop 8’s narrow victory, I decided to research the political activities of these two religions, along with some of the far-right organizations that had funded Prop 8. My investigation into these organizations was eye-opening, and exemplified the power religion still has in American politics.
Soon after Prop 8’s passage, I was contacted by someone who claimed to have documents detailing just how much the Mormon Church participated in the push for anti-gay marriage laws across 26 other states, dating back to 1995. We rendezvoused at a hotel bar in Salt Lake City and “Mr. X” handed over boxes stuffed with hundreds of official Mormon documents. As I read through them, my jaw dropped.
All gay married Mormon couples were banned from the Church, as were their children. Within months of the new policy, 26 LGBT Mormon teenagers from Utah committed suicide.
I spent three decades working in California and national politics and I had never seen anything quite like what I saw then: proof of a concerted yet veiled effort by a religious organization to influence public policy. One memorandum even detailed how, in 1995, high-ranking members in the Mormon Church recruited allies in the Catholic Church into battling gay marriage in Hawaii, which had been debated by both the state legislature and the Supreme Court of Hawaii since 1991. (We’ve since released some of these documents on MormonGate.com, as did Mother Jones and Los Angeles-based Frontiers Magazine.) The Mormon Church knew just how unpopular it was with the public, so it recruited the more prominent Catholic Church and built a coalition between the two. This teaming up of these religious organizations helped pass Hawaii’s gay marriage ban in the form of a constitutional amendment in 1998.
Along the way to their successful campaigns and vast lobbying efforts, the Mormon Church skirted state election and reporting laws, keeping their involvement hidden by setting up front groups like the National Organization for Marriage. According to one high-ranking official in the Church’s Public Affairs Department, they defined their focus as “pre-Prop 8 and post-Prop 8.” The Mormon Church’s plan almost worked, but they got caught and it cost them dearly.
Because the Church’s standing with the public plummeted, after Prop 8 passed, Mormon Church leaders set up a meeting with a group of prominent Utah LGBT leaders to right the ship. Over the next several months, as a result of these face-to-face meetings, the Church agreed to support an LGBT workplace and housing nondiscrimination law in Salt Lake City, where the Church is headquartered. With the Church’s support, this measure passed unanimously.
So Church leaders did what any organization is supposed to do amidst a corporate crisis: show remorse and do something positive. In 2012, Church leaders again began meeting with LGBT leaders. After three years of on-again, off-again negotiations, on March 11, 2015, Utah replicated the Salt Lake City nondiscrimination law state-wide. Accolades poured from both sides. The LGBT community and all its allies in and outside of Utah became optimistic, hoping the Mormon Church was poised to finally embrace LGBT Mormons and welcome them in the Church.
Wrong. On November 5, 2015, just four months after the United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the land, the Mormon Church issued a new policy, which was leaked ahead of its planned announcement. It stated that all gay married Mormon couples were banned from the Church, as were their children. The hurt to these LGBT couples and their children was unimaginable. Within months of the new policy, 26 LGBT Mormon teenagers from Utah reportedly committed suicide. The count has risen over the past 19 months and attempted teenage suicides have soared, according to Mama Dragons, a gay-straight advocacy and support organization founded by Mormon moms who have LGBT children. This must stop. The Church should be held accountable.
We’re now fighting back on behalf of all these young people who are suffering. Heeding Pope Francis’ words from two years ago—that if a religion becomes more of a business, it should pay taxes—we’re working to challenge the Mormon Church’s sacrosanct tax-exempt status. With an estimated income of $7 to $8 billion per year, that could really sting, but it’s nothing compared to the pain of a teenager who contemplates taking his or her life after being cast out by their religion, community or family. We want to challenge the Church—a multinational business that we believe has up to $1 trillion on which it appears no taxes are paid—on the hundreds of “tax-exempt” businesses it owns.
As the LGBT Community celebrates Pride this month, know that things are getting better all over the country. Recent national polls show public support for gay marriage has risen to a record 64 percent. The very religions that have worked so hard and spent so much money to attack the LGBT community for decades are going to have to change with the times and embrace equality if they are going to survive.
Let us celebrate all our progress and success, but let us not sit ideally by. We as a community, with the help of our millions of allies, need to hold those who want to hurt us accountable. We need the freedom of religion in this country, but we also need the freedom from religion.
If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, help is only one call away via the Trevor Lifeline, 866-488-7386, available 24/7.
Fred Karger is the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major political party in American history and has worked on nine presidential campaigns, serving as a senior consultant on campaigns for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford. He retired after 27 years and has since become an activist for gay rights causes, including his organization Californians Against Hate (now Rights Equal Rights).
Read more essays from Playboy’s Pride series here.