Elder Dallin H. Oaks referred to gay marriage as an "alleged civil right" in an address at Brigham Young University-Idaho that church officials described as a significant commentary on current threats to religious freedom.
Oaks suggested that atheists and others are seeking to intimidate people of faith and silence their voices in the public square, according to his prepared remarks.
"The extent and nature of religious devotion in this nation is changing," said Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a church governing body. "The tide of public opinion in favor of religion is receding, and this probably portends public pressures for laws that will impinge on religious freedom."
Oaks' address comes as gay-rights activists mount a legal challenge to Proposition 8, the ballot measure that overturned gay marriage in California. His comments about civil rights angered gay rights supporters who consider the struggle to enact same-sex marriage laws as a major civil rights cause.
"Blacks were lynched and beaten and denied the right to vote by their government," said Marc Solomon, marriage director for Equality California, which spearheaded the No on 8 campaign. "To compare that to criticism of Mormon leaders for encouraging people to give vast amounts of money to take away rights of a small minority group is illogical and deeply offensive."
Solomon said the Mormon church hierarchy has every right to speak out, "but in the public sphere, one should expect that people will disagree."
In an interview Monday before the speech, Oaks said he did not consider it provocative to compare the treatment of Mormons in the election's aftermath to that of blacks in the civil rights era, and said he stands by the analogy.
"It may be offensive to some _ maybe because it hadn't occurred to them that they were putting themselves in the same category as people we deplore from that bygone era," said Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice who clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren at the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Salt Lake City-based Mormon church, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has shied from politics historically but was a key player in the pro-Proposition 8 coalition. The LDS First Presidency, its highest governing body, announced its support for Proposition 8 in a letter read at every California congregation, and individual Mormons heeded the church's calls to donate their money and time.
After the measure prevailed, its opponents focused much of their ire on Mormons, organizing boycotts of businesses with LDS ties and protests at Mormon worship places. While some demonstrations were peaceful, in others church windows were shattered and slurs were hurled at the church's founding fathers.
Some of the most pointed comments in Oaks' Tuesday address focus on Proposition 8. Oaks said the free exercise of religion is threatened by those who believe it conflicts with "the newly alleged 'civil right' of same-gender couples to enjoy the privileges of marriage."
"Those who seek to change the foundation of marriage should not be allowed to pretend that those who defend the ancient order are trampling on civil rights," Oaks said. "The supporters of Proposition 8 were exercising their constitutional right to defend the institution of marriage ..."
Oaks said that while "aggressive intimidation" connected to Proposition 8 was primarily directed at religious people and symbols, "it was not anti-religious as such." He called the incidents "expressions of outrage against those who disagreed with the gay-rights position and had prevailed in a public contest."
"As such, these incidents of 'violence and intimidation' are not so much anti-religous as anti-democratic," he said. "In their effect they are like well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation."
The Mormon church has faced criticism for its past stances on race; it wasn't until 1978 that the church lifted a prohibition that denied full church membership to black men of African descent.
In an interview Monday, Oaks said the Proposition 8 saga was one of several trends that motivated him to deliver the address, but it was "not the trigger."
"There are civil rights involved in this _ the right to speak your mind, to participate in the election," Oaks said. "But you don't have a civil right to win an election or retaliate against those who prevail."
Fred Karger, founder of the gay rights group Californians Against Hate, said Oaks' speech is part of a public relations offensive to "try to turn the tables on what has been a complete disaster for the Mormon church ... They are trying to be the victim here. They're not. They're the perpetrators."
In his address, Oaks also rejected any religious test for public office. He said that if "a candidate is seen to be rejected at the ballot box primarily because of religious belief or affiliation, the precious free exercise of religion is weakened at its foundation ..."
In the interview Monday, Oaks said he was referring in part to the 2008 presidential bid of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith troubled some evangelicals.
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