SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will account for nearly 90 percent of the state Legislature this session, giving members of the faith outsized influenced in a state that is becoming slightly more religiously diverse.
When the new session begins Monday, LDS legislators will account for 91 of the 104 members, according to a Salt Lake Tribune story based on research of past surveys, campaign websites, members’ social media pages and direct calls and emails to some lawmakers.
That’s a much larger portion of the legislative body than Mormons have among the state’s 3.1 million residents. Members of the LDS church account for about 62 percent of the state’s population.
The LDS supermajority shines a new spotlight on concerns about the LDS influence on policymaking.
Former Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis, a non-LDS member, said decisions about Utah’s new DUI law that is the strictest in the country were made by people who don’t drink alcohol.
But incoming House Speaker Brad Wilson, a Republican and member of the church, said the faith has been transparent in recent years when it gets involved in policy. He cited the faith’s efforts to revise the state’s medical marijuana law as an example.
“I find it surprising how often people outside the Legislature believe the church is weighing in on issues when, in fact, it is very rare,” Wilson said. “Right now, my calendar is full of groups that want to meet and discuss issues. I don’t have any meetings with the LDS Church on my calendar.”
Democratic Rep. Patrice Arent, the only Jewish member of the Legislature, echoed Wilson’s assessment. She said the faith only gets involved by issues that are important.
“Some members are, I think, more influenced by their religion than others,” Arent said. “Even within the same religion, some people are more influenced than others.”
Latter-day Saints typically lean Republican and that is reflected at the Legislature. All but one of the 82 Republican lawmakers are LDS, while 10 of the 22 Democrats are LDS.
Church officials claim political neutrality and have said lawmakers who are members of the faith are free to make their own decisions.
House Democratic leader Brian King, an LDS church member from Salt Lake City, said the church doesn’t strong-arm lawmakers but he said they seem to “to make it their mission to make sure state laws match the views of the church — at least their extreme views of what they think the church wants.”