Some Mormons are rejecting their prophet's call to campaign for a ban on same-sex marriage in California, suggesting the church leadership's sway over the issue of homosexuality may be weakening.
In a letter circulated to all the state's congregations June 29, President and Prophet Thomas Monson called on Mormons to "do all you can" to support the November ballot measure "by donating of your means and time."
The church strongly supported a successful 2000 California proposition that prohibited same-sex unions. The state Supreme Court struck down the measure May 15, opening the door for same-sex marriages.
The intervening years have brought a more widespread acceptance of homosexuality.
"In the eight years since the state proposition we have all become more educated," said Walnut Creek Mormon author and playwright Carol Lynn Pearson.
"Most people have realized they have a gay family member or a gay friend or people they work with who are gay. Most people are less quick to judge," she said.
"The LDS church — any church — has the right to do whatever it wishes, but I applaud the California Supreme Court's decision," said Martinez resident Susan Randall, an active Mormon.
Church officials declined to comment, referring calls to the Sacramento coalition behind the ballot measure.
"As I understand it, they are being asked to volunteer in the campaign — walking precincts, phoning voters, putting yard signs up in their yards," said coalition spokesman Jeff Flint.
A former Brigham Young University professor — Mormon, married and heterosexual — is circulating a letter of his own. In it, he says he does not believe people choose their sexual orientation and that denying them equal opportunities "is grossly unfair."
"You should also know, not all faithful Mormons agree with our religious leaders' encroachment into political matters," Jeffrey Nielsen wrote.
Nielsen, who lost his job at the university two years ago after speaking out about gay rights, said he has received numerous positive e-mails from other Mormons — a sign of times, he said.
Even the leadership is shedding its former characterization of homosexuality, he said. The church once cast homosexuality as an evil choice due to faulty parenting but now suggests biology is the determining factor.
"I'm confident and hopeful we'll make even greater progress," Nielsen said.
The church says it counts more than 750,000 members in California.
Even in Utah, some question the mandate. An article on the church's position in The Salt Lake Tribune drew several indignant responses. Some online posters said they resented being asked to contribute money for a political proposition on top of their required tithe.
"If the LDS church could give me one valid reason of how gay marriage is going to damage my marriage, I would probably jump on the bandwagon and start handing out pamphlets, but they simply cannot," wrote one.
Another post read, "Now it is clear: The church does not expect its members to think, investigate, or use their minds to look into this issue."
For one content Mormon, the directive simply underscores a church tenet. All families need a mother and a father — a man and a woman, said Elder Kent Archibald, a Utah resident working temporarily at the Oakland Temple.
"The prophet is very careful not to mix politics with the church except on matters that are fundamental to our beliefs," he said.
The divide does not fall decisively along age or ethnic lines, although some say California Mormons tend to be more liberal than those in other parts of the country, particularly Utah.
In the Catholic and evangelical Protestant faiths, youths are more likely to part ways with elders over the issue. Not so in the Mormon faith, scholars say.
"I'm not sure this is generational so much as an interesting development of independence among the rank-and-file Mormons," said Jan Shipps, one of the nation's leading scholars on Mormons. "This is by no means the first time something like this has happened," she wrote in an e-mail message. In 1932, the church president urged Mormons not to vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Roosevelt carried Utah in the presidential election.
No faith is as monolithic as it may appear to outsiders, but dissent tends not to become public, said Connecticut College religious studies professor Eugene Gallagher.
"When you've got dissent intersecting with politics in a volatile election year, it gets harder to keep quiet," he said. "We had an especially long democratic primary, a split within the evangelical camp over McCain. There are more folks who are thinking they are want to make up their own minds."
Walnut Creek Mormon Clark Pingree, a gay man, found Prophet Monson's letter "devastating."
"For the first time, the society and the government were giving me the validation I deserved," he said. "I wasn't nine-tenths of a person, I was ten-tenths. Now they talk about taking away something that was very uplifting."
However, he said he doubts most Mormons would question a dictate from the prophet.
"Judging from what I've read, I'd say the general public's attitudes are changing," said Terry La Giusa, a Mormon and member of Affirmation. La Giusa has lived with her partner for 21 years; the couple have two children. "But in the LDS church, what the prophet says goes."
Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or email@example.com.