Bob Bernick’s notebook: Tackling moral issues on Utah’s Capitol Hill

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I’ve watched the leaders of the LDS Church deal with local and national politics for 40 years as a journalist, and while it may just be a timing issue, it certainly seems that the church (or as we like to say in Utah, “The Church”) has been more active lately.

And in doing so, church leaders have also been more open about their involvement in what they term “moral issues” of the day.

And the latter is a good thing.

I’d much rather have church leaders operating out in the open than having state legislators and the governor hearing rumors and whispers and trying to decide whether to give them any credence in decision-making.

First, you have to understand that we’ve had faithful LDS governors for 40 years or more.

Former Democratic Govs. Calvin Rampton and Scott Matheson were more or less Mormons by tradition.

Rampton liked to light up a big cigar now and then (a former Tribune reporter hitched a ride in the small state prop plane with Rampton once, and the cigar smoke and bumpy ride led him to lose his lunch in his actual paper lunch bag).

Since Matheson left office in 1985, all the GOP governors have been openly faithful Mormons.

And the 104-member part-time Legislature is overwhelmingly Mormon, upwards of 80 percent to 90 percent, with faithful members in both political parties.

So, it is natural when LDS leaders do speak on an issue involving the state government, those who are making the decisions listen.

Now, various new governors have said they’ve spoken with church leaders and the same basic words were used: “We’ll run the church, and you run the government.”

And while that’s welcomed, every few years there seems to come up some issue where church leaders want their feelings known.

The most recent is a new state rule concerning banning “conversion therapy,” a professionally-debunked idea that you can “cure” homosexuality through various treatments.

This can especially be harmful to minors, whose parents — distraught by a child being a homosexual — seek this unsavory (and not effective) treatment.

And now comes the basically-hopeless push to have the Utah Legislature adopt the old Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the LDS Church opposed in a controversial legislative vote back in the early 1970s.

A pro-ERA rally was held at the Capitol the other day, with the longest editorial I’ve ever seen in the Deseret News (the Church-owned daily newspaper) laying out about 1,000 arguments to oppose the amendment.

The ERA isn’t passing the Legislature, and may not get much of a hearing since it’s dead on arrival.

Of course, the largest church-related public issue recently was last year’s medical marijuana compromise.

Church leaders came out publicly against Prop 2.

And while the relatively-high support of the ballot proposition among faithful church members was dropping as the November 2018 election neared, a compromise worked out between then-Speaker Greg Hughes (a faithful Mormon) and pro-Prop 2 advocates and the church, represented by its government affairs officer, Marty Stephens, a former House speaker, proved workable and wise.

And earlier this year we saw the implementation of “heavy beer” — over 3.2 percent alcohol — going into regular grocery stores. Another issue the church got involved in, as it often does on alcohol issues and state regulation.

Taken together, the last two years is perhaps the most public church/state agreements I’ve seen in, well, maybe in 40 years.

With the Prop 2 compromise the most public and interesting since a gay-rights bill passed several years ago — with church leaders at the announcing press conference — and liquor reform that allowed for “liquor by the drink” — something I didn’t believe I’d see in my lifetime. (Hughes was involved in that compromise, as well.)

Maybe the church being so openly involved in state decisions comes because of new church leadership, maybe in part, because Stephens is in an official church position where he is supposed to deal with governments, national, state and local.

Or maybe it is just a question of so many “moral issues” resurfacing which the church has dealt with previously.

But it is clearly noteworthy.

And let’s hope as church leaders take on issues they believe they must speak on, they do so openly, above board, even if some critics demand the church stay out of local politics.

Better in the light of day than whispering campaigns and rumors in Capitol hallways.