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c. 2011 Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) For decades, Mormon conservatives have believed their politics matched the positions of their church: opposing abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment and same-sex marriage, for example.

But now comes an issue that puts the two seemingly at odds: immigration.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has called for compassion when dealing with undocumented immigrants. It has urged politicians not to divide families, while some members support detention and deportation.

Church leaders have unequivocally lauded a new Utah guest-worker bill, which authorizes a program that allows undocumented immigrants to pay fines and stay in the state. It’s the same bill some leading Mormon conservatives are pushing to repeal, likening it to amnesty.

Unlike Mormon liberals, who long have struggled to balance support for their church with disagreement over some of its stances, these conservative members find themselves in an unfamiliar place.

And it’s as uncomfortable as it is unexpected.

“This is a real crisis for some people,” said Todd Weiler, former chairman of Utah’s Davis County Republican Party. “They want to be good Mormons, yet they are absolutely convinced that (the immigration bill) is amnesty and is bad.”

They are, he said, “freaking out.”

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, campaigned on eliminating the constitutional amendment that gives any baby born in America automatic citizenship, and has expressed reservations about the state immigration bill. Yet Lee also said he applauds his church’s emphasis on compassion and humanitarian concerns.

“I don’t think they were saying if you are a Latter-day Saint, you should say nothing but wonderful things about (the bill),” Lee said, “or that anyone who voted against it has betrayed their religion.”

Like Lee, Cherilyn Eagar, who sought the Senate seat that Lee won, sees herself in step with the LDS Church, even as she spearheads a campaign to repeal the immigration bill.

Eager said she understands that her 14 million-member faith has a responsibility to “protect its interests,” and an international church that puts a premium on overseas missionaries “has to protect its diplomatic relations,” she said.

To its credit, Eagar said, the church does not expect members to follow blindly but rather encourages them to think for themselves, study the issues and come to their own conclusions.

“We don’t have to agree with every policy and everything that is spoken from church leaders’ mouths,” she said. “Nobody (from the church) has called me and suggested that I should be challenged on my membership.”

Progressive Mormons faced a similar atmosphere when they opposed California’s Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot measure that eliminated same-sex marriage, even as the church heavily supported it.

In the heat of that campaign, LDS general authority L. Whitney Clayton said Latter-day Saints are free to disagree with their church on that issue without any sanction. “We love them,” Clayton said, “and bear them no ill will.”

That same tolerance is in place this time as well, LDS officials say.

Gayle Ruzicka, whose Eagle Forum opposes any legislation that it sees as leaning toward amnesty, accepts her church’s position. She does worry, however, about the hostility over the church’s immigration stance in some LDS quarters.

“There’s some angry people and some hurt people,” she said. “It’s time for them to exercise their faith. If you believe (LDS) President Monson is a prophet, you’re not going to leave the church over this.”

Ruzicka urges such members to calm down — “Get on your knees and take it to the Lord,” she said. It’s not the first time she’s found herself to the right of her church, and had to work through the differences.

“It had nothing to do with my faith,” she said. “As time passes, I always find out why (the prophet) was right. That’s why he’s the prophet and I’m not.”

Laura Compton, a California Mormon who helped organize Mormons for Marriage to oppose Prop 8, wrestled with the same dilemma for years, so she can empathize with some conservative Latter-day Saints on immigration.

“It’s not easy when you find yourself on the opposite side of the fence from the men you believe are prophets, seers and revelators,” Compton said. “But I don’t have to agree with somebody 100 percent in order to sustain them, to recognize their wisdom, to acknowledge them as leaders and assume their good intentions.”

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

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