Here in the state of Utah our 2016 legislative session is in full swing. Only lasting a mere 45 days the session is one of the shortest in the nation. Despite being such a short length Utah legislators pass hundreds of bills every year, oftentimes with many bills being passed on the final day of the session. Up at the Utah State Capital representatives, lobbyists, and other interest groups work to pass bills ranging on a wide variety of topics including issues such as education, criminal justice, healthcare, business and the economy.
One of the larger influences in Utah politics, if not the largest, is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The LDS Church, as it's often referred to, frequently voices their opinion on political issues they feel are important or relevant. Since nearly 60% of the state are members of the LDS faith including about 80% of Utah legislators, it's understandable to see that the LDS Church has considerable clout over Utah's political process. Here in Utah we see time and time again how a simple press release or statement from the Church is enough to either urge legislators to support a bill, or have the reverse effect thereby squashing any previous support for a bill. As a Utah Mormon I believe that this kind of political influence has reached an unhealthy balance and needs to stop. I do not believe one group or special interest should have so much power and influence in our political process here in Utah. In our current legislative session Utahns have already seen two issues arise in which it becomes quite clear just how involved the LDS Church is in Utah politics.
Two bills before the Utah legislature, of which the LDS Church has weighed in on both, deal with the issue of medical marijuana. One of the bills (SB89) raises no objections from the Church since it does not allow the use of products containing THC. On the other hand SB73 proposed by Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs IS opposed by the Church. The bill allows the whole marijuana plant to be used by patients who get a recommendation from their doctor. It would also allow for medical marijuana use of products that contain THC and gives a broader list of illnesses that qualify someone access to medical marijuana. A statement from the Church asserts the bills are very different: "These two competing pieces of legislation take very different approaches when it comes to issues like access, distribution, control and the potential harm of the hallucinogenic compound, THC." Of course what happened next didn't surprise me "After the church issued a statement last week opposing Madsen's bill, the senator said one and perhaps two senators had switched their votes and were opposing the measure." I do not believe the LDS Church should have this kind of powerful influence. What's also bewildering to me is that the bill the Church opposes is scientifically backed. Research has shown that use of the whole marijuana plant is much more beneficial then just the extracting certain parts of the plant. Like many other issues, I will always stand on the side of science and reason rather then subscribe to the misinformed unscientific information that the LDS Church props up.
Another bill making its way through the legislature that the LDS Church decided it needed to voice opposition to was SB107. The bill seeks to strengthen Utah's extremely weak hate crime laws. As it currently stands the law doesn't clearly define what a hate crime is and doesn't include language about people's specific characteristics such as race, disability, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. This of course gives the law almost no bearing and makes it nearly impossible to prosecute someone who has committed a hate crime. Like before the Church released a statement in which they gave untrue information about the pending bill. "The Mormon church cautioned the Utah Legislature on Wednesday against passing any new laws that would "alter the balance" between religious liberties and gay and transgender rights as reflected in last year's landmark anti-discrimination legislation. "The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year," church spokesman Dale Jones said in a written statement. "Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained."
The statement released by the LDS Church is misleading and I'm here to call them out on it. Creating stronger hate crime laws protect us all and to think otherwise is to ignore reality. As a Utahn, a Mormon, and a young person passionate about the future of our state I am embarrassed and angered by the way the LDS Church has acted. If the Church is going to continue inserting itself into the politics of Utah I ask that they come to the table with accurate information. Stop purporting falsehoods and thinly veiled scare tactics to make your point. If/when the LDS Church is ready to do this I, along with many others, will be right there alongside them ready to work together for the betterment of Utah.