How Maine Q. 1 is different from Prop 8

The campaign has mostly stayed below the radar, but voters in Maine will soon decide whether same-sex marriage will be legalized in their state.  Question 1 on this November’s ballot is very similar to last year’s California Proposition 8, but there are some big differences that I think are important.

Same-sex marriage was briefly legalized in California as a result of the state Supreme Court decision In re Marriage Cases.  The court refused to stay its holding to allow legal challenges, resulting in the voter initiative know as Prop. 8.  That vote and the subsequent California Supreme Court review brought gay marriages to a halt in California, but did not invalidate those already performed.

Contrast that tumultuous history with the background in Maine.  Like in New Hampshire, same-sex marraige was legalized in Maine through legislative act rather than judicial opinion.  I consider this to be a far preferable method of implementing new laws, for several reasons.  For example, the Maine statute included specific language about religious freedoms and addressed how the new law would (and would not) alter the obligations of religious organizations, clergy, and individuals.  I don’t think the Maine statute went far enough to protect individuals, but it’s a lot better than the silence in California on the topic.

Maine was also prudent enough to delay issuing marriage licenses to gay couples pending the outcome of Question 1.  While this may delay the ability of some couples to marry, I think it is much better to avoid the legal limbo and further litigation that happened in California.  The Maine statute also seems to address legitimate interests of gay citizens, rather than the ephemeral social acceptance the California Supreme Court attempted to mandate.  In general, I think legislators and officials in Maine have taken a far better approach to the question of legalizing same-sex marriage than their counterparts in California.

For Mormons, one of the biggest differences in the two campaigns is that the LDS Church has not taken an active role in the Maine initiative like it did in California. Individual Mormons are active in the campaign, but there have been no letters read from the pulpit or public statements from Mormon officials like in Prop. 8. I think this may be due to the fact that there is a smaller LDS population in Maine than in California, and perhaps the legislative approach to the law change and religious protections were more palatable to Mormon leaders. However, given the backlash and hostility following the outcome of Prop. 8, perhaps Mormon leaders are reluctant to get involved in a firefight again.

Despite their differences, Maine Question 1 and California Proposition 8 do have one thing in common: just days before the election, both initiatives were too close to call.  Maine Question 1 is running about even in the polls, so it won’t be until November 3 before we know the outcome.

Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn.This content is cross-posted from LDS Law.

Mormon missionaries will be excluded from 2010 Census

The excellent Howard Friedman of Religion Clause writes today that the Census Bureau has decided that the upcoming 2010 Census will not count Mormon missionaries who are living overseas. This was a big issue for the State of Utah, which narrowly missed gaining an extra congressional seat in 2000. Instead, the seat went to North Carolina, which has several military bases. Military service members living in other countries are counted in the census, but missionaries and other U.S. citizens living abroad are not. There are an estimated 11,000 Mormon missionaries from Utah that are living overseas. Utah challenged the census methods in a 2002 Supreme Court case, Utah v. Evans, but was unsuccessful.

The current Census Bureau policy counts military service members, federal employees, and citizens on merchant vessels. Other groups of U.S. citizens living abroad are not counted. Representative Bob Bishop (R-Utah) has opposed the policy as unfair an inaccurate. The most recent challenge to Census policies does not contest the counting of military members or federal employees, but instead argued that other groups (such as Mormon missionaries) should also be counted. I actually think this argument has some merit, particularly since the Census Bureau currently counts people on merchant vessels. Military service members and federal employees are serving their country, and may therefore be entitled to special treatment. But how is a crew member on a merchant vessel different from a missionary or a businessperson or a Peace Corp volunteer living abroad? The Census Bureau responds to these criticisms that they have found no feasible way to accurately count every American overseas.

There was a brief attempt earlier this year to change Census policies through congressional act, but the bill (S.160) (PDF) failed in the House when members of Congress attempted to use the bill as a vehicle to invalidate D.C.’s firearm restrictions. 

Further reading:
Religion Clause: 2010 Census Again Will Not Count Overseas Mormon Missionaries
Salt Lake Tribune: Census count to exclude overseas missionaries—again
U.S. Census Bureau: Issues of Counting Americans Overseas in Future Censuses

Photo credit: noneck.

New alcohol laws take effect in Utah

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the new Utah state alcohol laws that took effect last week. While none of the blog’s current contributors live in Utah, it’s impossible to ignore the role that the Mormon Church has played in alcohol control policy in the state where a majority of the residents are at least nominally adherents to the faith. The new Utah laws abandon the 40-year-old requirement that bar patrons fill out an application, pay a fee and become a member of a private club. The private club rules were a quintessentially Utah oddity for many years, but they were most noticed during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics.

I’ve never quite understood the rationale of the private club rule. By most accounts, the rule was not much of a barrier to drinking, and in some parts of the state (such as Park City) it wasn’t even enforced. So the private club rule doesn’t appear to have restricted alcohol consumption. It seems to have had more of a social stigma function, requiring drinkers to be “on a list.” In that respect, the updated law hasn’t changed much. The Associated Press reports:

The [Mormon] Church has always helped shape alcohol policy here, and the change to the law this year was no different. Only after consultation with church leaders and an agreement that DUI penalties would be stiffened, did lawmakers make progress on the changes.
As part of the agreement, Utah also became the only state in the country to require bars to scan the ID of anyone who appears to be 35 or younger to ensure their ID is valid. Bars store the information for a week so law enforcement can inspect it.
Anyone who has an ID that doesn’t properly scan is required to fill out a form logging their presence at the bar.

Utah alcohol laws still have quite a few quirks. That same AP article notes that flavored malt beverages may not be sold at grocery or convenience stores, the percentage of alcohol in beer is capped at 3.2%, happy hours are illegal, and cocktails must be mixed out of the sight of customers.

As a policy matter, I think the new law is at least a step in the right direction, particularly the harsher DUI penalties. I would rather see some more creative solutions, such as those that I discussed earlier this year involving alcohol tax equal to the average marginal social cost of each drink.

Secular laws vs. God’s laws

I was on the road last weekend and attended church at a Mormon ward in another city. Their Sunday School schedule was a week behind my home ward, so I got to hear the Word of Wisdom lesson twice. After hearing members of the class quibble over what constitutes “hot drinks” and the purpose behind the various prohibitions and admonitions, I started thinking about how the Word of Wisdom compares to secular laws.

I’ve often said before that the Word of Wisdom would be a lot clearer if it came with a definition section, but that approach probably wouldn’t work well for a religious law. A Word of Wisdom written like modern statutes would probably be less ambiguous, but it would also be limited by the text of the document. For example, illegal drugs are commonly included in the prohibitions of the Word of Wisdom, but there isn’t any particular text in Doctrine & Covenants 89 that supports this interpretation. Instead, that prohibition is based on the spirit of the law and (more importantly) revelation and clarification by modern prophets having the authority of God.

We have secular laws for many of the same reasons that we have laws from God. Those laws are intended at least in part to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others, so as to create a better-functioning society. Secular laws tend to be lengthy and difficult to understand, with rigid structures and terms of art that make them inaccessible to the layman. Secular laws, even constitutions, can usually be updated or amended by their enacting bodies to deal with changed circumstances. Sometimes secular laws can be interpreted by judicial bodies to clarify or extend the application thereof.

God’s laws tend to be relatively simple, even if they aren’t exhaustively thorough. They are designed so that even a child can understand the basic principles. They aren’t always crystal clear in structure or purpose, but like secular laws, religious laws can be clarified and expanded — not by legislatures or judges, but by God’s servants and messengers. And unlike secular laws, God’s laws always have an element of subjective application. Thus, there is considerable variation within the Mormon Church with respect to certain practices, such as paying tithing on gross or net income, drinking or avoiding Coke, etc.

Even though a Word of Wisdom with a definition section would be easier to follow, it doesn’t seem like a good idea. God’s laws weren’t meant to be subjected to textual analysis, but rather, inspired guidance and illustration by His servants. Attempting to quantify and dictate every aspect of worship was precisely what the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were trying to do, and that didn’t work out too well for them. Worship was never intended to require legal counsel — it is a personal relationship with Deity. So now when the members of my Sunday School class question how much meat consumption qualifies as “sparingly,” I sit back and smile. If that’s what it takes in order to keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ from devolving into arcane legal discussions, then it’s a small price to pay.

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch signs same-sex marriage bill

Last month we covered the debate in New Hampshire over Governor John Lynch’s proposed amendments to a same-sex marriage bill that would provide certain religious protections for clergy and religious organizations. The New Hampshire house refused to accept Governor Lynch’s proposed language and the bill had stalled. Today various media outlets are reporting that the bill has been signed into law, and that most of the religious protections survived committee review.

I think this is an encouraging first step in reconciling religious liberties and the seemingly inevitable expansion of same-sex marriage. As his signing statement indicated, Governor Lynch clearly recognized this tension and sought to address it in a way that had not been done in any other state so far. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons why such measures are best performed by the legislature rather than the judiciary.) Governor Lynch’s proposed language didn’t go far enough in my opinion because it fails to protect the religious liberties of individual that are not clergy or managed by a religious organization. But at least New Hampshire recognized those religious rights, which is more than can be said for Massachusetts or California.

Photo credit: marcn.

New Hampshire gay marriage bill stalled over religious exemption

I saw yesterday (via the Mirror of Justice) that the Democratically-controlled New Hampshire House of Representatives blocked passage of a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriages in the state. You may have seen news reports that New Hampshire Governor John Lynch promised to sign the bill if a provision was added to allow clergy to decline to perform such marriages. Here’s the significant portion of the added language:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a religious organization, association, or society, or any individual who is managed, directed, or supervised by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges to an individual if such request for such services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges is related to the solemnization of a marriage, the celebration of a marriage, or the promotion of marriage through religious counseling, programs, courses, retreats, or housing designated for married individuals, and such solemnization, celebration, or promotion of marriage is in violation of their religious beliefs and faith. Any refusal to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods or privileges in accordance with this section shall not create any civil claim or cause of action or result in any state action to penalize or withhold benefits from such religious organization, association or society, or any individual who is managed, directed, or supervised by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society.

As Minnesota Law prof Dale Carpenter pointed out, the language is fairly broad but it could be broader. It doesn’t cover state employees, for example, or private individuals who are not actually managed or directed by a religious entity.  But it’s definitely the broadest protection included in same-sex marriage legislation so far, and it will likely set the pattern for states in the future. This is the first concrete attempt I have seen to reconcile the conflict between religious liberties and the gay rights movement, and though I oppose same-sex marriage, I found it quite hopeful. It even seemed to reinforce the argument of Dave Banack of Times & Seasons that the LDS Church should focus on defending religious liberties rather than opposing same-sex marriage.

But the New Hampshire House killed the bill. At first glance it appears that same-sex marriage proponents were willing to have the bill defeated before conceding any ground. This is not a productive approach, and it is precisely the type of behavior that has created the clash between religious groups and same-sex marriage supporters. As an opponent of same-sex marriage, perhaps I should be glad that the measure was defeated. But I’m really disappointed that the New Hampshire legislators were so unwilling to recognize appropriate accomodations to First Amendment religious rights.

For more information on the intersection of religious rights and gay marriage, see the Pew Forum’s Question & Answer session today with George Washingoton Law professors Chip Lupu and Robert Tuttle.

Photo credit: NASAVideographer.

Hate crimes and hate speech

Last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 1913 , the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. This piece of legislation has been opposed by many conservative Christian groups that fear prosecution under the proposed law if a pastor spoke out against homosexuality. Howard Friedman at Religion Clause has been following the discussion of the bill , so if you’re unfamiliar with the proposal, you should check it out. Since it’s in the news, I thought I would put in my two cents about hate crime laws and the closely related hate speech laws and codes. I personally oppose them, for both legal and pragmatic reasons.

For starters, I think hate crime and hate speech laws are patently unconstitutional. There are definitely some Equal Protection problems when a crime against a member of one ethnic or racial group is treated differently than the same crime committed against a person of another group. But the primary problem with hate crimes and hate speech is that they punish thought. Even though it is deplorable, it is not illegal to hate a minority or to believe that your particular race is the superior, pure race. I think it is unconstitutional and indefensible to punish a person (or increase that person’s punishment) for believing something when those constitutionally protected beliefs are the motives for a crime. If the First Amendment protects an idea, it must protect that idea no matter how it is used.

My second reason for opposing hate crimes and hate speech is less of a legal reason and more of a pragmatic one. I noticed that the progressive think tank ThirdWay recently argued that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act is actually good for religious groups, since it would expand protection for religious groups. So it might seem that a religious person like myself should support the legislation. But from a common-sense standpoint, this is a bad idea. If we pass laws punishing constitutionally protected ideas, that opens the door for similar laws that can restrict our own ideas.

Where I went to law school the university had considered enacting a hate speech code on campus in the 1990’s, and had consulted with several law school professors and student groups in the process. One of the constitutional law professors told them it was a terrible idea and almost certainly unconstitutional, but the school was still determined to enact the hate speech code until the local Lamda fraternity weighed in. They said that they recognized the fact that the hate speech code would protect homosexual students, but they did not support the proposal. They knew that any rule or law advocating one ideology or punishing another can open the door to similar laws advocating different ideologies. Hate speech codes and hate crime laws essentially turn over to the democratic process the job of protecting the rights of minorities. But majorities can change in a relatively short period of time, and very purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure that the rights of minorities are not in the hands of the majority.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act might afford my religious beliefs additional protections, but only how and when the current majority chooses. When the majority changes its mind, my protections go out the window. So from a pragmatic standpoint, I would oppose any sort of hate crime legislation, leaving standard penal codes to do the work they were intended to do.

Utah governor vetoes video game bill

Various tech blogs are reporting that Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has vetoed a bill that purported to impose harsh penalties on retailers that sold M-rated video games to underage buyers. Among other penalties, the bill would have provided for seller liability in a civil suit. However, as critics of the bill have pointed out all through the legislative process, the proposed provision had a gaping loophole that would have allowed retailers to opt out of the ratings system altogether. In addition to ineffective problems, the bill likely would not have passed constitutional muster because the language was so imprecise and was not content-neutral. That was the reason cited by Governor Huntsman when he vetoed the bill yesterday. In his accompanying letter (PDF), Huntsman specifically stated his opinion that the bill violated the Dormant Commerce Clause and/or the First Amendment.

The video game bill, HB353, had very broad support in both the Utah House and Senate, so there is still a chance of a legislative override. However, I hope that isn’t the case. Legislation like this is often popular in conservative jurisdictions like Utah, but there’s no point in passing an unconstitutional law that won’t accomplish anything. Additionally, this bill has a strange pedigree, as it was purportedly drafted by Jack Thompson, a controversial disbarred Florida lawyer who has campaigned in several states for laws against video games.