STK Salt Lake Temple and Utah State Capitol

The Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at left, is pictured with the Utah State Capitol, at right, on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, in Salt Lake City. 

Three religion-affiliated panelists tackled the issue of whether religion should have an influence on public policy Wednesday at Brigham Young University’s 2019 Religious Freedom Annual Review. Their answer? Religious individuals should involve themselves in public policy discussions and allow their religious beliefs to shape their political opinions. They added that public policy conversations shouldn’t be dominated by voices from one religion alone, but they also shouldn’t be free from religious voices altogether.

The panelists — all of whom belong to religions other than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — made a good point, but only painted half the picture.

We agree that individuals should be able to bring their religiously-shaped opinions and beliefs to the table during discussions and decisions of public policy, just as we think individuals who are shaped by secular philosophies should be allowed to do the same. But beyond that, we do not agree the same idea applies to religious institutions themselves in most cases.

The LDS Church caused quite a stir in April 2018 when it released a statement from the First Presidency arguing “the proposed Utah marijuana initiative would compromise the health and safety of Utah communities.” Prior to the statement, the medical marijuana train was solidly backed and seemed to have a sure green light — previously, two-thirds of “very active” Mormons supported its legalization, according to a poll. Suddenly, things went from sure and straightforward to messy and confusing. In the end, Proposition 2 still passed (though without as many yes votes as was previously expected). But then the Utah Legislature rejected the voters’ decision and instead came up with an alternative, compromised medical marijuana law.

We disagreed with the church’s action then, and we now go further to say that religious organizations in general would do best to refrain from telling its members how to vote on specific local issues and measures. Rather, those organizations should teach their members a religious system of beliefs and morals, and then trust those members to utilize those religion-shaped opinions when voting and participating in public policy discussions.

That’s not to say religious organizations shouldn’t be able to have policies about general political topics. For example, the LDS Church denounces abortion aside from a few “exceptional circumstances.” Great, the institution should be completely free to have those policies and teachings! But it should teach them to its members, and then let them take what they learned and apply it in their public policy discussions and voting decisions, if they so choose.

We argue this opinion as applicable to all general religious institutions, but it’s impossible to not apply this way of thinking to the LDS Church when talking about Utah.

We all know that we live in a unique state when it comes to high populations of LDS Church members — a fact which influences Utah’s reliable red waves of voters. We also all know that a majority, of our state lawmakers and elected officials are active LDS Church members. Shouldn’t that in and of itself be enough? Should the organization reach even further into its influencing power and directly tell people how to vote on specific state measures? We would argue going that last step is just too much.

The LDS Church is well-known for being a strong supporter of separation of church and state. In Utah, that’s near impossible just because of the church’s vast presence. But that separation doesn’t need to be erased even more with multiple First Presidency statements telling people how to vote, making some feel pressured to vote a different way than they were originally planning lest they feel guilty about disobeying a Latter-day Saint prophet.

What happened to the church’s heavily emphasized teachings on an individual’s moral agency? Making voters feel like they have no choice but to vote a certain way in order to stay a faithful member of their religion does not quite sound like letting people have free moral agency. What happened to the church’s 12th Article of Faith, which proclaims the belief of obeying and honoring the laws of the land, even if the government isn’t perfect in the church’s eyes?

So, yes, last night’s panelists were thinking in the right direction. But Utah needs more than just a general agreement that individuals should be allowed to bring their religiously shaped opinions to a voting booth or public policy discussion. To avoid an even more extreme lack of church and state separation, Utah would do best if religious institutions refrained from explicitly telling its members how to vote on specific measures.