LDS Church Takes Public Stance on Immigration Legislation

Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 2011

The LDS Church stepped from the sidelines on immigration reform and squarely onto the playing field Tuesday by sending Presiding Bishop H. David Burton to attend and speak at Gov. Gary Herbert’s signing ceremony for four bills passed by the Utah Legislature.

“Our presence here testifies to the fact that we are appreciative of what has happened in the Legislature this session,” Burton said at the signing, indicating it was no accident or private decision. “We feel the Legislature has done an incredible job on a very complex issue.”

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Burton’s presence was an extraordinarily public endorsement for the LDS Church, which typically prefers to work in the background. And it has supporters and critics from within the faith scrambling to know how to react.

One thing is clear: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has abandoned its claims to neutrality on these bills.

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Both supporters and opponents agree that the church’s endorsement of the Utah Compact and its involvement in the legislative process was a game-changer.

If the Utah Legislature had been in session right after Arizona passed its stringent immigration law, the Beehive State “likely would have gotten the same thing,” said Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute.

But with LDS Church support for immigration reform, Mero said, “We’ve had a 180[-degree] turn in this state. Culturally, more and more folks understand how reasonable comprehensive reform is compared to enforcement only.”

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, echoed that sentiment.

“There is no question that the Utah Compact, with the church’s endorsement, made a significant difference to me and others in the Legislature who helped craft immigration legislation,”

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More than 80 percent of Utah lawmakers are LDS.

But it has left faithful Mormons who support strict enforcement of immigration laws grappling with the message from their ecclesiastical leaders.

“I am shocked that the church would support a bill that literally sacrifices 50,000 Utah children, who are the victims of identity theft, for the benefit of illegal aliens,” Mortensen said. “The church has sent so many conflicting messages, I just don’t know where they are coming from.”

It hasn’t destroyed his faith in the church, he said. “My faith is stronger than that, but it disappoints me.”

Arturo Morales-LLan, head of Legal Immigrants for Immigration Law Enforcement, supports the enforcement-only bill by Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem.

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The Latino activist said he met with Herbert shortly after the signing ceremony and that the governor assured him that Burton was there as an invited guest and the church had “no involvement” in the bills.

That has left Morales-LLan feeling confused with what he sees as the church’s conflicting messages–to obey the law or support what he sees as “amnesty” for lawbreakers.

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The debate is vital to Utah’s Latino population, many of whom are LDS. [Latino activist Tony] Yapias and others estimate that 50 percent to 75 percent of members in Utah’s 100-plus Spanish-speaking congregations are undocumented. That includes many bishops, branch presidents, even stake presidents. The church sends missionaries among undocumented immigrants across the country, baptizing many of them without asking about their status. It also allows them to go to the church’s temples and on missions.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, didn’t support the immigration bills, arguing that immigration is a federal–not state–issue. But the first Latino minority leader in the Legislature said he was happy to see “a more compassionate” approach than the original enforcement-only efforts. He applauds his own religious leader, Utah Catholic Bishop John Wester, for his outspoken defense of undocumented immigrants.

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