Every legislative session a few bills pop up that generate a lot of buzz, but never quite make it to the finish line. For the last few years, that has been the case with proposed legislation to toughen the state's penalties for hate crimes. So what invisible forces propel some bills while squashing others? Some critics say it's the Mormon Church, whose membership includes almost 90 percent of the Utah Legislature. Others say their influence is overstated. And then there's Steve Urquhart, a former Republican state senator from St. George, who observed this phenomenon firsthand.
Since leaving the legislature, Urquhart, a Mormon, has been outspoken about the LDS Church and its lobbying. In this bonus episode, Urquhart talks with KUER reporter Lee Hale to explain how the church wields its influence and what he'd like to see change.
Urquhart: The Mormon Church is less involved in legislative matters than people might think. They really only pick a few issues — marriage, all LGBT issues, alcohol. But when they weigh in on those things, it's absolutely decisive. I don't think they've lost a battle in my 16 years up there. I can't see them losing a battle for the next 16 years.
Lee: When you say they weigh in, what does that look like, what form does that take?
Urquhart: Well, it used to be that they would weigh in more publicly. They would talk to the rank and file members and I'm 100 percent fine with that. They have the right to lobby the Legislature. To my mind, it would be weird if they didn't. They speak for a lot of Utahns, and it's just fine. They should help shape the culture and the laws of Utah. I'm fine with that.
Lee: But Urquhart says ever since 2008, when the church supported Proposition 8 in California, things have been different. That ballot measure which passed opposed same sex marriage. And although the campaign was successful the involvement of the church made a lot of Mormons uncomfortable. The general consensus was that church membership and attendance took a hit — as did the church's reputation.
Urquhart: Part of the church being on its heels from Prop 8 is that it no longer walks through the front door of the Utah Legislature. It just goes behind the scenes and whispers to certain members of leadership and they make things happen.
Lee: One example Urquhart gave shows how this might go down. The Mormon Church owns a lot of land in Utah, and on some of that land is water. In Utah, where water is scarce, there are laws that say if you don't use your water within a certain number of years, the government can reclaim it and use it for something more useful. Well, in St. George, the area that Urquhart represented, there came a time when the church was supposed to give up some of its water. They didn't want to. They decided instead that the law should be changed.
Urquhart: So the sponsor of the bill talked with me. And I said, 'No, that completely goes against what our water law is what it should be. I think that's a really bad idea. I'm going to fight that.' And so, he was a very experienced member, I was a very new member. He kind of laughed and said, 'You don't quite get how it goes up here, do you?' Basically, the church gets its will, and of course it did in that case.
Lee: Fast forward a few years, Urquhart is a more seasoned lawmaker and he's working on a bill that changes anti-discrimination and fair housing laws to include sexuality and religion. And it catches national attention.
Urquhart: So going into the 2015 session, the media would call me — and this would be like New York Times Washington Post — 'Are you going to pass your bill?' Because we were going to be the first red state to offer full LGBT protections in employment housing. And my answer was, 'I don't know. I have no control over this.' 'Well, aren't you the sponsor?' 'I am, yeah, but I don't have any control. And actually none of the 104 members of the legislature have any control. The only entity who can tell you whether this will pass is the Mormon Church.' And, of course, the media, they were kind of stunned by that. And what I was trying to do was point some heat toward the church to get them to move.
Lee: And, it worked. The church said they'd back the bill, which obviously passed. But then a year later Urquhart introduced a hate crimes bill with similar protections. It blew through committee, had nearly everyone's support, but the church PR department issued a statement. What they basically said was, 'Remember that great anti-discrimination laws we passed last year? That should be good enough for now.' And just like that, the bill was killed.
Urquhart: I was pissed, and so held a press conference. And I do still identify as Mormon and so I apologized to Utah — apologized to the LGBT community — that my religion isn't with them, that my religion killed this hate crime bill. And so I know that they still chafe over that. But I've had meetings with various church folks since and I said, 'Look, this is the rough and tumble of politics. If you're going to be in the arena, you have to expect that someone is going to land some blows on you.' I mean, if my mom killed my bill like that, I'd elbow her hard to the teeth. I mean, that's just the way this works.
Lee: Another reason Urquhart dislikes the backdoor approach is that it allows other faith-based lobbyist groups to do the same. There's a 'we're all Mormon here, we're all on the same team' type of attitude that really muddies the water. Not only does it give those groups a deeply unfair advantage, it confuses the public on what laws are influenced by the church directly and which are groups simply pretending to be the church. All this, the reason it really frustrates Urquhart, is because he genuinely loves the Mormon Church.
Urquhart: I think it does great things for the state, and that's what I'm telling my fellow Mormons, my legislators. Why isn't the church absolutely loved in Salt Lake City? You look at the phenomenal things it does. It's because people bristle that their politics and their laws are being controlled from behind the veil. If the church were to do this out in public, I think people would be more accepting of the outcomes. Plus, the church would take more direct heat. And therefore might pick and choose its battles a little more wisely.