2 BYU studies reflect complexity of Mormon church’s influence in shaping immigration views

Published: Monday, May 2 2011 12:41 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A pair of recent Brigham Young University studies paint a conflicting picture about how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has influenced Utah's immigration debate.

One study suggests church members softened their views on immigration reform after the LDS Church released a statement in November calling on legislators to keep families together and remember immigrants economic contributions. The other indicates that, as of early April, members were still confused about the church's viewpoint on immigration reform and tended to interpret the church's opinion through the lens of previously established attitudes.

"There are institutions and political figures in any environment that have influence of public opinion," said Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. "In Utah, that's as true for the LDS Church and its members as it is for influential Republican leaders and Republican voters."

For his report, which was published this month on utahdatapoints.com, Monson analyzed data from voter polls in October 2010 and January 2011. In November, a group of religious, political and business leaders got together and wrote the Utah Compact, a document that called for a "humane" approach to immigration reform that would keep families together and recognize immigrant contributions to the economy. Shortly afterward, the LDS Church issued a statement of support.

Before the compact was introduced and the LDS church released a statement, 66 percent of voters favored an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform. After, the score dropped 9 percentage points. In the meantime, the percentage of people who opposed Arizona-style legislation jumped 11 points.

"That's a meaningful change in public opinion, but not enormous," Monson said.

It is impossible to discern how much of the change was prompted by the Utah Compact and how much was inspired by the LDS Church's public statement, Monson said. People who described themselves as active Mormons and Republicans, though, were most likely to have changed their opinions.

The other study, which is also posted on utahdatapoints.com (a blog of political science professors at Utah universities), polled Utahns for both their own opinions and their impressions of the LDS Church's stance on each of the four immigration bills the legislature passed in March. The survey was conducted before the LDS church reiterated its support for the package of bills last week.

Between 44 and 46 percent of respondents said they didn't know the church's position. Twenty-two percent of those who said they did know, misstated the church's standpoint.

"The fact that as many as one-fifth of respondents who claimed to know the LDS Church's position believed that it opposed a bill like HB116 shows both the significant lack of clarity among Utahns about the LDS Church's stance and the challenge of moving individuals away from their predispositions," wrote Chris Karpowitz, an assistant professor of political science at BYU.

Those who supported HB116 themselves, Karpowitz found, were more likely to believe the church supported the bill, too.

"In other words, Utahns viewed the LDS Church's positions through the lens of their own attitudes," he wrote. "The more they supported bills like HB116, the more they believed that the Church supported it, too, regardless of party or religious affiliation."

An LDS Church spokesman said last week the public affairs office has fielded "three or four calls a day ... asking for the Church's position on immigration" since the end of the legislative session. In response, the LDS Church reiterated its appreciation for Utah's approach to immigration reform, on its website.

"The Church has spoken a number of times about the issue of immigration," the post reads. "Specifically, it has spoken in support of the Utah Compact and has described the package of bills passed by the Utah Legislature, taken together, as 'a responsible approach' to the difficult question of immigration reform."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

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