Though I've lived in many cities of varying sizes in a few different states, there's something to be said about where someone is from, their birth "home" so to speak. It's this curiosity that has me check on the laws, legislations, and other political wars that may be brewing where I came from; Utah.
If you aren't familiar with what the political landscape is in the Beehive State, pretty much everything you've heard is true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS/Mormons) does control what happens there. I could go through the myriad of laws, regulations, and the like as it pertains to the LDS leaders and their influence. The long arm of their God reaches far and wide; forcing the hand of everyone with any legislative or regulatory powers. One thing that exemplifies this power has to do with the 2018 state-ballot initiative to legalize marijuana for medicinal uses.
Written By: Anton Sawyer
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In a 2018 interview with three of the LDS church leaders about medical marijuana, they made their stance pretty clear when it came to their opposition of Proposition 2, which would legalize the use and distribution of medical marijuana in the state. “Part of our doctrine is the principle of moral agency — people make choices for themselves,” said Jack Gerard, an LDS general authority Seventy. “We think there is a better solution than what is before voters this fall.” Keep in mind that at this time, there was no other “solution.”
The church had offered no other alternatives. Either you suffer with your condition, or keep getting fed opioids from a physician—be mindful of the fact that Utah has unfortunately ranked in the top 10 in the nation for overdose deaths over the past 10 years. If you want to read my personal tale of opioid addiction, I'll link it here.
The reason for the passionate blow-back is because using marijuana for anything other than what it’s medically prescribed for violates one of the church’s main tenets called the “Word of Wisdom.” In essence, it says that you cannot use tobacco, alcohol, or any other chemical which will dull your senses, some of the real die-hards won't even allow themselves a caffeinated beverage, such as coffee or Diet Coke. Craig Christensen, also an LDS general authority Seventy, pointed out “It would be analogous to tobacco or other, in essence, harmful, addictive substances,” Christensen said. “If used for recreational purposes, hallucinogens, it would cause [to] dull your senses.” Their thought is that if you use marijuana, you will become addicted and not able to control yourself.
The voters made their voices heard, and it passed by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. The citizens were thrilled. “It is a time for Utahns to celebrate,” Christine Stenquist, a medical cannabis patient and founder of the advocacy group TRUCE Utah, said. “I think it’s fantastic that we’ve crossed this hurdle.” Of course, because the LDS faith had been doing everything they could to prevent it from becoming a ballot initiative in the first place, they used their power and influence to stop what they could. They influenced state lawmakers to put together a special legislative session in order to undercut the ballot initiative. The vote that passed happened in November of 2018. They had the replacement law by December of the same year. The church was so upset about it that the first business day after Utah’s medical cannabis initiative became law, state legislators went to work changing it with a more tightly controlled plan for providing marijuana-based treatment.
The replacement legislation crafted by lawmakers (with some behind-the-scenes help from church leaders) pretty much overhauls everything that was in Prop 2. The new distribution system contains a more robust oversight and tracking plan. Critics of the bill say it would strangle Utah’s medical marijuana program in red tape and block too many patients from cannabis treatment. The big takeaway from this is that when the LDS faith wants something, it gets done and done very quickly.
Also, through its small portion of history, the LDS faith has not been known for its inclusion of minorities—including pretty much those disenfranchised by other religious portions of society. The fact that black people were allowed to join their church, but not allowed to hold their priesthood for many, many decades is a prime example. When the Supreme Court case of Bob Jones University v. The United States was ruled to include wording that if your faith is racist, you will lose out on tax-exempt status and other goodies—it just so happened that around the same time the prophet of the LDS faith called up God, who lives on planet Kolob (yes, they do believe this), and received word from Him that all of those who had been banned because of their race, could now hold the priesthood.
The history of the Church is so intertwined with the local government, I never thought I would see these events coming from Utah that shows a genuine growth of inclusion—and to be honest, I'm watching with much skepticism.
The first event was when Republican Senator Mitt Romney voted to impeach ex-President Donald Trump. Romney had been a huge critic of Trump's from the moment he threw his hat into the 2016 Presidential race. During his presidency, Romney often criticized the president at almost every turn. So when he voted to impeach Trump, not a lot of people were surprised.
What was surprising was what happened afterward. Romney has, and continues to be, the subject of much scorn from Republicans for voting against the majority of his party at the end of the trial. There has been a push on social media to censure him, with one effort saying he “misrepresented himself as a Republican” and accused him of being an agent of the “deep state” that opposed Trump. Other Utah Republicans have called for his resignation for his vote. This was to be expected. During the Trump presidency, ANYONE who spoke negatively about Trump would be attacked massively by those who supported the ex-president. When Romney returned to Utah, all of these threats of repercussion never really came to bear fruit. When he returned Utah Senator Mike Lee, who was a huge Trumper during his tenure, fought against the censure. He didn't feel that punishing someone for voting their conscience was appropriate. He was quoted as saying, “Although Senator Romney and I usually vote together — and with a majority of Senate Republicans, we voted differently,” in a statement Lee issued through his 2022 reelection campaign. “It shows neither one of us blindly defers to anyone.” During the Trump-era, this never happened. So to see a fervent Trump supporter back the morality of someone opposing him is incredibly stunning.
The next event was due to a piece of local legislation that would ban transgender women (male to female) from participating in high school sports. There were many reasons given why this should pass—both religious and otherwise have been said. The main issue that's been tossed around is the thought that because a man's body type is so different than a woman's, it would give an unfair advantage in the sport. Seeing what happened with the medical marijuana, I expected this to fly through for approval.
Newly elected Republican Governor Spencer Cox has spoken out about the bill and said he could not sign it as-is. He said, “I’m not in a place yet where I’m comfortable with the bill as it stands right now. Those discussions are ongoing. We still have a lot of work to do.” He continued while tearing up, “I apologize for getting a little emotional. But when you spend time with these kids, it changes your heart in important ways. And so I want to try to improve that message and see if we can’t find a better way to work together.” So far the law hasn't had any revisions, and Governor Cox hasn't come out and exactly laid out the ideas he has to make it fairer for all.
This event is truly shocking. The GOP has been very vocal about its resistance to anything involving the trans community. Given the LDS churchs' ability to modify laws at will, and that they have never backed any trans initiatives, to see the leader of the state come out and openly say to them, and the world, this is wrong. Utah is definitely off-script with the rest of the party.
I had never thought I would see any political leader in Utah openly defy the church and its political peers. This is huge given that Senator Romney is not only an active LDS member but was also the Republican Presidential Nominee in 2012. I never would have thought that those in leadership of this very red state would ever be able to espouse their own beliefs publicly—especially when those beliefs are not "popular." I'm not sure where this is all going to go. Did the faithful have a huge epiphany that changed the horizon of their religion completely? I don't know.
I do see all of this being kind of a litmus test. The GOP has always tried to keep people out that they don't like, no matter the reason. Is this "new way" going to catch on with the party nation-wide and start welcoming outsiders with open arms? I think the election in 2022 is going to be a watershed event. Trump has said he is going to try and get every elected official to lose in their primaries. This has been catching steam with some.
For the state of Utah, the 2022 election is going to show us exactly where the party is going. If we see the voters of Utah remove Romney and Cox over the next two cycles, then we'll have our answer.
Either Trump and his "might is right" is going to be how the Republicans face any adversity, and we could see a plethora of new faces in Congress. Or they will think about the teaching of "judge not, lest ye be judged," and try to build bridges of community with all types of people. If you follow politics, this is the state, and the elections I would keep my eyes on. It could be a new beginning ...
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