With the Hawaii Legislature poised to usher in the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appears to be shifting its approach from offense to defense.
While the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage — one of the faith's top leaders, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, defended the position in an official address in Salt Lake City on Sunday — the church is taking a decidedly lower-key approach in Hawaii.
Mormon leaders have issued a letter asking members to contact state legislators in support of a robust exemption for Hawaiian churches, businesses and individuals who believe that promoting same-sex marriage violates their religion.
"Whether or not you favor the proposed change, we hope that you will urge your elected representatives to include in any such legislation a strong exemption for people and organizations of faith," says the letter, dated Sept. 15.
That includes protecting "individuals and small businesses from being required to assist in promoting or celebrating same-sex marriages," the letter says.
The statement is the latest sign that the Mormon church doesn't plan to repeat its 2008 strategy with California's Proposition 8. Mormons campaigned vigorously to pass the traditional-marriage initiative but were vilified afterward by gay-rights advocates in the media and popular culture.
The Mormon church profile was significantly lower in the 2012 gay-marriage battles in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, but those states also have relatively small Mormon populations. Not so Hawaii, which has the sixth-highest Mormon population per capita among states and houses two temples and Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
The letter was issued shortly after Hawaiian Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, called a special session to begin Oct. 28 to consider same-sex marriage. Hawaii now allows civil unions for same-sex couples but not marriage.
The heavily Democratic state House and Senate are expected to approve the legislation, which does include an exemption for clergy whose churches do not wish to perform them. Supporters of the same-sex marriage bill say the state constitution also protects the rights of religious institutions.
"The proposed law to allow marriage for same-sex couples very clearly protects the rights of Hawaii's clergy: It says, unequivocally, that no clergy member will be required to preside over any wedding against her or his will, and that no clergy member can be sued, fined, or otherwise punished for refusing to officiate at any wedding," Vanessa Chong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said in a statement.
That is more than some states have done to safeguard religious freedom in their same-sex marriage laws, but the Hawaii exemption doesn't extend to small businesses such as bakeries, flower shops or other marriage-related services whose owners object to gay marriage for religious reasons.
James Hochberg, head of Hawaii Family Advocates, called even the clergy exemption "absolutely meaningless." He predicted that it would be challenged quickly in court by gay-rights advocates who argue that churches are public accommodations and thus cannot discriminate against gays, blacks or other protected groups any more than hoteliers and restaurant owners can.
Mr. Hochberg's group is part of a coalition — which he said includes some Mormons — pushing the state Legislature to bring the issue before voters instead.
"If I were a legislator, I would say to myself, 'I don't know what the unintended consequences of same-sex marriage will be, so I don't want to be the one to decide this,'" said Mr. Hochberg. "Let the people decide this."
Roman Catholic Bishop Larry Silva of the Diocese of Honolulu also has issued an "urgent letter" asking Catholics to contact their state legislators about the issue.
Opposing the ballot option are gay-marriage advocates at Hawaii United for Marriage, a coalition that includes lawmakers, businesses and religious leaders from, among others, the Unitarian and Methodist churches.
"We definitely do not believe this should go before the voters," said Donald Bentz, spokesman for Equality Hawaii. "The rights of the minority should never go before the majority for approval. As we've seen over and over again, it's something that tears communities apart."
In 1998, Hawaiian voters passed a constitutional amendment that gave the state Legislature authority to "reserve marriage to opposite-sex couples," after which Hawaii became the second state to explicitly refuse to recognize same-sex unions as marriages.
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