Bob Bernick’s notebook: Church vs. state in 2018

We all knew 2018 would be a defining year for citizen initiatives in Utah.

But few would have guessed that leaders of the LDS Church would send out emails to the faithful in Utah asking them to vote against one of the propositions.

That happened Thursday night when hundreds of thousands of emails went out asking faithful Mormons to vote against the medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 2 – an unprecedented move by LDS leaders that now throws the church-state issue squarely at Utah voters.

Before the January-March general session of the Legislature, there was a real possibility of having five major initiatives on the November ballot.

It turned out, there will be three – Better Boundaries redistricting commission, medical marijuana, and full Medicaid expansion.

For the first time under the initiative petition law, another petition – Count My Vote – made the ballot, but was kicked off because an organized opposition – Keep My Voice – got just enough CMV signees to take their names off the original petition, thus disqualifying it.

And another petition, Our Schools Now, reached an agreement with the Legislature to stop their petition if lawmakers put on the ballot a compromise 10-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax increase.

If that nonbinding question passes, lawmakers will look toward imposing the tax and make other budget changes to bring $300 million annually into school spending.

But Utah’s citizen initiative process is going to be further challenged this year by the state’s 1,000-pound political gorilla: The LDS Church.

Church leaders have been quietly trying to get Republican political leaders – like Gov. Gary Herbert and the federal congressional delegation – to publicly oppose the medical marijuana initiative, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.

Church leaders, up until now, have taken kind of a half-hearted opposition approach to medical marijuana legalization here.

But Thursday church leaders stepped out of the shadow to officially oppose the initiative – which will be Proposition 2 on the ballot.

Previously, church leaders cited the religion’s Word of Wisdom prohibition against illegal drugs and the Utah Medical Association’s opposition to the petition.

Thursday, church leaders said in a press conference they oppose the specific Utah ballot proposition, but don’t necessarily oppose the use of medical marijuana if prescribed by a medical doctor through a licensed pharmacy.

Later in the evening, Mormon officials sent out emails to faithful members – hundreds of thousands of them.

Of course, even though 30 other states legalize medical marijuana in some form, no state has licensed pharmacies dispensing the drug, since it remains illegal under federal law.

So the LDS Church’s acceptable exception is currently meaningless.

Church leaders also published this past Spring a legal analysis by the church’s outside attorneys on possible problems with the petition’s language. editors warned, in a recent video and podcast, that it would be “wrong, wrong, wrong,” for state leaders to use taxpayer-funded resources to oppose the medical marijuana initiative.

And it appears that Herbert has decided just that – state facilities and resources will not be used against the initiative.

Anti-medical marijuana advocates wanted to use the Capitol’s Gold Room Thursday’s press event, but Herbert declined to give his approval.

The Gold Room is reserved for official state functions – and in fact has been used for celebratory events, like the signing of a compromise LGBTQ rights law, complete with Mormon Church leaders in attendance.

Instead, the anti-medical marijuana folks used the Capitol auditorium, which anyone can rent or use.

This may sound like a small thing. But it does warn the anti-medical marijuana group that Herbert won’t be spending state monies against the petition.

Everyone, including elected officials, has freedom of speech. And Herbert is within that right to verbally oppose the petition – which he has.

Utah’s federal delegation – and any other officeholders — can certainly speak against the petition.

LDS Church leaders, also, can undoubtedly define medical marijuana use by their members as wrong and speak against the petition.

But state or city or county officials shouldn’t use taxpayer funds, in any way, against or for a ballot proposition.’s latest Dan Jones & Associates polling shows that Utahns favor legalizing medical marijuana use as defined in the petition, 72-25 percent, with 43 percent “strongly” supporting the initiative.

Jones finds that 59 percent of “very active” Mormons support the initiative; only 38 percent of “very active” Mormons oppose it.

Those LDS numbers will likely change before the election – especially now that Church leaders are taking a more active role in opposing legalizing the drug in Utah for pain and several specific diseases.

Herbert is right in drawing a clear line now – as pressure grows to oppose medical marijuana – to keep taxpayer funds out of the fight.

Utah citizens have a constitutional right of initiative petition.

And Utah government should stay out of that fight; let the voters decide this and other initiatives.