By: Steven Cuevas
California's Proposition 8 banned same-sex couples from marrying and touched off a closely watched legal battle that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month. It also stirred up soul-searching in the Mormon church, one of Prop. 8's big financial backers. Some church members are questioning long-held beliefs about homosexuality.
Mormon Sunday school teacher Matt Riley used the “soft sell” approach when working the phones during the “YES" on Prop. 8 campaign.
“I would say Prop. 8 is about same-sex marriage,” explains Riley, sitting in the office of his two-story home in the Temecula Valley near San Diego. “And I just wanted to let you know that the proposition is going to be on the ballot, and we encourage you to vote however you feel you should vote.”
The instruction from the highest-ranking officials with the Church of Latter Day Saints were clear: avoid arguments with voters. That was easy for Riley, a straight, married father of two.
He was ambivalent about the church’s involvement in the campaign from the start. Butlike other Mormons, he found justification in church doctrine and in the words of leaders like 88-year-old Boyd Packer, one of the highest-ranking officials in the LDS church.
In a controversial sermon in Salt Lake City shortly after Prop. 8’s passage, Packer likened homosexuality to an addiction that can be overcome through prayer and self-control.
“Some suppose that they are preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impurity of the unnatural,” Packer told the audience. “Not so. Why would our heavenly Father do that to anyone?”
Those kinds of comments, and the Mormon Church’s well-organized, multi-million-dollar campaign to pass Prop. 8 triggered an outcry from many, including several outside the main LDS temple in Los Angeles.
“There were a lot of protests outside the temple in Los Angeles on Santa Monica Boulevard,” remembers Matt Riley who was living in L.A. at the time. “And I know someone personally whose house was vandalized because they had multiple Prop. 8 signs on their lawn.
“There was a feeling of martyrdom, no question,” Riley says.
Riley says Mormons felt misunderstood and under siege. It spurred some to double down on their anti-gay marriage stance; others like Riley began to have a change of heart. Riley says he now regrets his work to help pass Prop. 8.
“I know there are situations where families are torn apart, where parents disown their children over this issue, and that is wholly contrary with what we try to achieve in true Christianity,” Riley says.
Marriage between a man and a woman is considered a sacred covenant, the very core of the Mormon faith. Mormons believe a marriage and the family that springs from it will live for eternity in the kingdom of heaven.
Shellie Milne settles down for an interview at her long dining room table on a recent Saturday, three of her kids tear through the house and into the backyard with the family dog barking and nipping at their heels.
Milne and her husband are raising six kids in the town of Hemet, about 70 miles east of Anaheim. The local councilwoman and devout Mormon accepts gay people. She doesn’t believe homosexuality is a choice.
But she’s opposed to gay marriage.
“Once you bring it in and try to force your belief, which is homosexuality, into that church I have a problem with it,” Milne says. “Because if you wanna live how you wanna live, then you have to let these other people live how they want to live. I see it as a fundamental right being taken away from those churches."
That kind of thinking is in line with that of many mainstream church leaders. But other leaders who once held similar views are reversing course.
Just over a year ago Kevin Kloosterman, a Mormon Bishop from Illinois, publicly renounced his opposition at an annual conference for gay Mormons in Salt Lake City.
“I am sorry. Deeply, deeply sorry. As I learned more about these issues I began to see the emotional wounds,” a tearful Kloosterman told the audience. “I know that we truly are … straight, gay, lesbian, transgender…our heavenly Father’s children.”
Since the passage of Prop. 8, the church has made attempts to explain and refine its policy towards homosexuality and gay marriage. It launched the website Mormonsandgay.org, which encourages church members to embrace their gay brothers and sisters.
But leaders quoted on the website also say that acceptance should not be confused with endorsement of homosexuality. In other words, as LDS leader Boyd Packer suggested, homosexuality is something that can and should be overcome.
Ben Jarvis, who lives in the town of Newhall north of Los Angeles, is openly gay and Mormon – though he no longer attends services. He stays connected to the Mormon community through his years of work with Affirmation, an international support group for gay Mormons with headquarters in Southern California.
Jarvis operates a hotline for gay and lesbian Mormons struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality. He remains a harsh critic of the church’s position on gay issues, but says the church is capable of real change.
“I’ve seen so many changes occur in my lifetime that I have no doubt that the church will change, I lived through the 1978 revelation when African-Americans were welcomed in full fellowship,” Jarvis says.
Like many gay Mormons he feels a deep connection to the church community.
“As more and more people accept gays and lesbians as just regular human beings which we are, I think there will be voices within the church that will ask even more unsettling questions,” Jarvis says.
At the Mormonsandgay.org, one church leader calls the Book of Mormon “a gospel of change.” All Mormons, he says, should aspire to transform things about themselves.
Taken one way, that could mean changing one’s sexual preference. But to Mormons like Matt Riley, it means changing long-held beliefs about homosexuality.
Riley says he could be wrong about renouncing his opposition to gay marriage. If he is, he wonders how the conversation might go when it’s time to meet his maker.
“You know Matt, you did a pretty good job on a couple of things but you were wrong on the gay marriage thing, you were too accepting of people,” he imagines God telling him.
“I think I would say; ok you really threw me off there, God, with the whole love-thy-neighbor stuff and the Christian ethic you kinda threw me off there,” Riley laughs.
“So that’s me pleading my case!”
"A Church Divided" was reported in collaboration with the Center for Investigative Reporting.