Mormonism and politics/Equal Rights Amendment

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    Why did church leaders oppose the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States?

QUESTIONS


Why did church leaders oppose the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States?

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

It's sometimes mistakenly assumed that because the Church opposed a proposed amendment to the United States constitution known as the Equal Rights Amendment, the Church must have also opposed equal rights for women. As explicitly stated by Church leaders, the Church did not oppose equal rights for women. However, it was opposed to the potential consequences of the brief, vaguely worded ERA. The concern was that the amendment would unintentionally have a negative impact on women's rights and families. Furthermore, the Church felt the Constitution already prohibited gender discrimination, making the ERA an unnecessary risk.

What is the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)?

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was proposed as an amendment to the constitution of the United States. It was first introduced in 1923 and rode the tides of American politics until it failed to be ratified by the required minimum number of states in 1982. It has never been enacted.

The proposed amendment read, in its entirety:

• Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

• Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

• Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The LDS Church’s Position on the ERA

In 1976, during the strongest, most vocal push to ratify the ERA, the Church made an uncommon move and took an official position on a political issue. The First Presidency -- then comprised of Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, and Marion G. Romney -- issued a statement opposing the ERA. It went on to urge American Church members to work as citizens to defeat the proposed legislation.

The First Presidency’s statement reads, in part:

There have been injustices to women before the law and in society generally. These we deplore. There are additional rights to which women are entitled. However, we firmly believe that the Equal Rights Amendment is not the answer. [1]

Even with an endorsement from the First Presidency, no Church funds were used to campaign against the ERA. [2]

Mistaking Opposition to the ERA for Opposition to Gender Equality

The LDS Church was not the only organization in America to oppose the ERA. Religious groups sponsored by Catholic and other Christian and Jewish faiths also opposed it. Secular organizations, most notably Phyllis Schlafly’s STOP ERA, campaigned against it as well. The Republican Party wavered in its support for the amendment and still managed to win the 1980 election. Clearly, the American populous – inside and outside the LDS Church -- was not without reservations when it came to the ERA. However, this does not mean the majority of the nation was against women’s rights simply because it was unsatisfied with the ERA. A popular slogan of the day was “Equal Rights, Yes. ERA, No!”

Critics of the Church, both in the twentieth century and today, often equate the Church’s opposition to the ERA to opposition to equal rights for women. This misconception continues despite clear, unequivocal statements from the Church to the contrary.

Long before the ERA became well-known, leaders of the LDS Church were already speaking of women’s rights. In 1942, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostle, John A. Widtsoe said:

In the Church there is full equality between man and woman. The gospel … was devised by the Lord for men and women alike…The privileges and requirements of the gospel are fundamentally alike for men and women. The Lord loves His daughters as well as He loves His sons… This makes individuals of man and woman—individuals with the right of free agency, with the power of individual decision, with individual opportunity for everlasting joy… There can be no question in the Church of man’s rights versus woman’s rights. [3]

Opposition to the Vague Language

The ERA was written in very brief and general terms. Those concerned about the wording feared the amendment was overly vague and too vulnerable to unintended consequences.

Member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Boyd K. Packer, addressed this in 1977:

I recognize that the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment may be well intentioned in their desire to improve the status of women. We need to be very alert as to what the amendment would do besides what is intended. It is so easy to set about to solve a problem and end up creating yet a greater one. [4]

Rex E. Lee, (a legal scholar, an Assistant Attorney General in the US Department of Justice, and the person who would soon become the 37th Solicitor General of the United States) warned:

By its nature, [the ERA] will either do too little or too much…The highly vague language of the ERA has the potential to do far more than simply add one additional suspect classification (sex) to existing equal protection doctrine. How much more? I really don’t know. And that is the greatest problem.” [5]

Several states passed legislation with similar wording to the ERA and unintended consequences did indeed arise. In Maryland and Pennsylvania women were deprived by the courts of spousal and child support as direct results of ERA-type state laws. In one case, a man succeeded in proving in court that he could no longer be prevailed upon to pay his wife’s medical expenses. [6] Cases like these bolstered the notion that the ERA was flawed and risky.

Opposition on the Basis of Redundancy

Opponents of the ERA pointed out that the legal principle of the equality of all citizens was already guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the United States’ constitution which reads,

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In other words, all US citizens -- regardless of any individual characteristics including gender – are entitled to “equal protection” under the law. When the fourteenth amendment was applied in courts in matters of gender discrimination, such discrimination was rejected as unconstitutional.

This would have been the interpretation Boyd K. Packer envisioned when he said of gender discrimination:

Existing laws, if properly enforced, could effect the corrections necessary. Even some proponents of ERA have admitted that a Constitutional amendment is not really needed to achieve the desired legal reforms. They argue, however, that its adoption represents some kind of a symbolic gesture, some overcorrection of a long neglected cause…I am for the equitable enforcement of existing laws. There are sufficient of them to protect the rights of women and of children and of men. Or to enact judiciously and wisely any needed legislation to correct particular circumstances.” [7]

The special Ensign publication on the ERA provides “a partial list” detailing eight acts which make gender discrimination illegal in the United States. According to the Ensign, “existing laws…prohibit discrimination, on the grounds of sex, in virtually all areas of American life—education, employment, credit eligibility, housing, public accommodation.” [8]

Rex E. Lee said:

In all the debates over ERA in which I have participated, I have yet to hear anyone suggest a single discriminatory law, which a majority of Americans would want repealed, that would not already be unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Opposition on the Basis of Democracy

The ERA was seen by many as an attempt to wrest political power away from elected local authorities and put it in the hands of unelected federal judges and bureaucrats. As proponents of democracy – what the Book of Mormon calls “the voice of the people” Alma 29:26 -- Church leaders were troubled at the prospect of this kind of shift in power.

Opposition on the Basis on Gender Homogeneity

Both inside and outside the Church, opponents to the ERA expressed concerns that the amendment would erase important distinctions between men and women. In the words of Boyd K. Packer:

Among the great dangers in the [ERA] is the fact that it would deprive lawmakers and government officials alike of the right by legal means to honor the vital differences in the roles of men and women. [9]

The concern was that a codified homogenization of genders would limit women’s power to choose to fulfill traditional roles. Without certain “necessary protections and exemptions” [10] it was feared that women would be forced into difficult positions through:

-being made subject to compulsory military service even if they were raising small children

-lapses in court orders for child and spousal support payments

-weakening of sexual assault prosecutions

-loss of existing spousal benefits such as medical insurance

-changes to the tax system that might make it more difficult financially for people to live as married couples.

All these potential effects of the ERA were seen as damaging to family life in America. Boyd K. Packer said:

We [the Church] analyze the effect of every influence that comes along, as it may ultimately change by way of strengthening, or threaten by way of weakening, the family. We have the lingering, ominous suspicion that the proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment have paid little, if any, attention to the family at all. [11]

The ERA and Church Discipline

The special ERA section of the Ensign states:

Contrary to news reports, Church membership has neither been threatened nor denied because of agreement with the [ERA]. However, there is a fundamental difference between speaking in favor of the ERA on the basis of its merits on the one hand, and, on the other, ridiculing the Church and its leaders and trying to harm the institution and frustrate its work. [12]

It’s likely that attention was drawn to this question due to the case of Sonia Johnson, an ERA activist who was excommunicated. Her excommunication came after she gave a speech, titled "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church."[13] She spoke several more times on the topic, always harshly criticizing the Church and its leaders. Johnson often cites her stance on ERA to be the reason for her excommunication, although there is no evidence besides her claims that this is actually the case. The reasons for an individual's excommunication are rarely publicly released by the Church. However, Johnson and those close to her claimed that she was excommunicated for apostasy.[14] No other individual has ever claimed to have been excommunicated for their stance on the ERA, although a number of other members did publicly disagree with Church leaders on the issue.

Johnson's later remarks in Chapter 5 of her book, Going Out Of Our Minds: The Metaphysics Of Liberation also make it clear that there were other issues at work, though in keeping with the Church's practice of disciplinary council confidentiality, they were not revealed at the time.

America without the ERA

Of course, it’s impossible to know how the United States might have developed differently if the ERA had been ratified in 1982. Some of the effects opponents of the ERA were trying to avoid -- such as the proliferation of abortion and same-sex marriages -- eventually became parts of American society anyway. Maybe the ERA would have brought on these changes sooner – or maybe not. It’s impossible to know.

Since 1982, the Fourteenth Amendment has continued to uphold the principle of gender equality before the law. Still, gender discrimination continues to exist. It’s no longer overt or common in institutional settings but it endures in the everyday lives of American women. It continues to be a disgusting though pervasive and enduring fact of life. It doesn’t seem realistic that any act of government could have undone millennia of prejudice and abuse. As the special section of the Ensign explained back in the days of the ERA:

The ERA does not automatically guarantee equal rights…the ERA would not affect many inequities that result from attitudes and customs. It would prohibit only governmental discrimination. [15]

Gender inequalities are much more complex and insidious than any law has the power to lob off in a single stroke. To say otherwise is to oversimplify and trivialize women’s struggles for equality. These facts highlight the ERA’s status as a symbolic gesture – an attempt to promote awareness and attitudinal changes about gender equality more than an attempt to effect real change. It was the position of the Church that such a move was not worth the risk of inadvertently losing rights women already enjoyed.

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CONCLUSION

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In the company of many other organizations, the LDS Church opposed the ERA. However, it explicitly did not oppose the principle of equal rights for women and men. The ERA was brief and vague and considered too vulnerable to unintended, unfortunate interpretations. It was deemed unnecessary since equal gender rights were already protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. It was feared the ERA would erode democracy by moving power away from elected local officials and giving it to unelected federal courts. Another concern was that the ERA would dull the salience of important gender differences and cost women their access to child and spousal support and benefits and their exemption from compulsory military service. Despite claims made in the media of the day, the Church did not discipline members merely for disregarding the First Presidency's stance on the ERA.

Gender inequalities are much more insidious and complicated than any law has the power to lob off in a single stroke. To say otherwise is to oversimplify and trivialize women’s struggles. The ERA was largely a symbolic gesture – an attempt to promote dialogue and attitudinal changes about gender equality more than an attempt to effect real change. It was the position of the Church that such a move was not worth the risk of inadvertently losing rights women already enjoyed.

Endnotes

  1. [note]  "The Church and the Proposed Equal Rights Amendment: A Moral Issue," Ensign. Mar, 1980.
  2. [note]  Boyd K. Packer, "The Equal Rights Amendment," Ensign. Mar, 1977.
  3. [note]  Sonia Johnson, "Patriarchal Panic: Sexual Politics in the Mormon Church" speech given at the American Psychological Association Meetings, New York City, 1 September 1979. off-site
  4. [note]  Linda Sillitoe, "Church Politics and Sonia Johnson: The Central Conundrum," Sunstone no. (Issue #19) (January-February 1980). off-site PDF link
  5. [note]  Sonia Johnson, Going Out Of Our Minds: The Metaphysics Of Liberation (Crossing Press, 1987), chapter 5.


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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