LDS Church leaders have told legislative bosses that the "element of humanity" should be re-introduced to the state's immigration debates.
Before each general session, GOP and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate sit down separately with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints special affairs committee, a group made up of church general authorities, church public relations officials and their lobbyists, to discuss any items on the minds of both legislators and church leaders.
House Minority Whip David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said the Democrats' meeting with church officials brought up several issues, but the immigration discussion was the most touching for him personally.
"I interpreted what was said as this: 'Take a step back, be calm, and above all remember that we are dealing with human beings here,"' said Litvack, who is Jewish and has himself called for cooler heads in dealing with the often emotional issue of illegal immigration.
House Majority Leader Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, a member of the LDS Church himself, said immigration issues did not take up much time in the Republicans' meeting with church leaders. "But they did say we all need to approach this subject with compassion."
When asked about the legislative meetings, church spokesman Rob Howe said, "We communicated our policy ... The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no position regarding currently proposed immigration legislation."
After Congress refused to deal with immigration issues in 2007, more and more states are now stepping up and passing various kinds of laws. Last year, Oklahoma passed a law that makes it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants and that creates barriers against undocumented immigrants obtaining jobs or public assistance.
In Utah, Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, is drafting a bill modeled after the Oklahoma law. Other lawmakers are working on piecemeal efforts, which included tightening or repealing Utah's driving privilege card, and repealing a 2002 law that allows qualified undocumented students to pay in-state tuition to attend Utah's public colleges and universities.
LDS Church officials "used the word 'call,' they made a call for humanity in immigration" debates and legislation, Litvack said. "We should not demonize" illegal immigrants. "In some cases, the debate has become so ugly, I heard, so hateful and dehumanizing. Let's bring back the element of humanity."
The worldwide church has many Hispanic and Latino members, and the church's missionaries in Latin America are some of the most successful in getting new converts to the church.
Across America, but especially in the West, the tone of immigration debates has, at times, turned harshfully critical of immigrants and of the politicians arguing for what they term reasonable immigration laws.
Especially in the Republican presidential contest, immigration hard-liners have been pushing for tough new laws and policies.
While LDS Church leaders did not support or oppose any specific piece of legislation that may come up in the 2008 Legislature, which convenes Monday for its 45-day general session, Litvack said they did say: "Take a step back, remember that human beings are involved here. As faith leaders in our community they have a concern for all human beings.
"And I certainly appreciated that. I was glad they spoke out on this topic," Litvack said.
Litvack said church leaders and Democrats also talked about how presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was being treated in the press and by various groups and individuals as he runs for the Republican Party's nomination. Romney won the Michigan GOP primary last week and hopes to win the Nevada caucuses today.
"We said we understand some of what Romney is seeing, and how his religion is being treated," Litvack said. "And we told (church leaders) this also applies to us as some Democratic members of the LDS Church are told they can't be good Democrats and good Mormons at the same time." Religious intolerance works both ways, he said.
"As Mitt has been treated unfair, targeted" for being Mormon, so too have some LDS Democratic candidates been targeted in Utah as somehow unworthy of election, he added. "And it is not fair to bring religion into our own campaigns here. I hope people remember this" in Utah local elections later this year.
The church leaders also said they would come out in favor of taking soda-colored, 3.2-percent alcoholic beverages out of grocery stores and putting them into state-operated liquor stores. The church released a statement on that Thursday. Litvack laughed when asked if he thought such alcohol regulations would pass the Legislature, where 80 percent of lawmakers are members of the LDS Church. "Yeah, we'll see on that one."
Clark said church leaders reasoned that any beverage made through distilling liquor should be sold in state liquor stores, distributed by the state to licensed restaurants and private clubs. This new soda-looking 3.2 beverage is distilled, he said. "It is actually a continuation of how we've handled liquor in Utah for some time" brewed 3.2 percent beverages, such as beer, are sold in grocery stores; wines and distilled liquors, no matter what their alcohol content, are sold in state liquor stores.
Clark, who is sponsoring what's been called a first-step health-care reform bill this session, said church leaders were also interested in that subject. The LDS Church "insures a lot of lives in Utah and elsewhere." Deseret Mutual Benefit Association is the church's main health insurance firm, which also provides insurance for Deseret Morning News employees.
Clark's bill was not public when he met with church officials, so they could not endorse a specific bill, he said. But Clark said they supported his bill's two main concepts trying to slow down rising health-care costs and beginning to address the needs of 300,000 Utahns who have no health insurance.
Finally, Litvack and Clark said the LDS Church leaders were very concerned about the meth drug crisis in Utah and beyond.
"They are concerned about this problem among their own church members" and how the drug's use is ruining lives and breaking up families, Litvack said.
Clark said the leaders, from the perspective of training their own lay congregation leaders, want to become more involved in seeking solutions to addictive drug problems.
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Litvack said he's been active in the past on meth legislation but this year is turning it over to Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, and will help from the sidelines.
Litvack expects legislation aimed at helping local county health departments deal with meth-lab houses, where the drug is cooked.
"These cook houses are very expensive to clean up, a real health hazard. There are also the houses where meth is routinely used not as serious as the cook houses but still a problem," he said.
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