Debating Proposition 8--Should California eliminate marriage for same-sex couples?

Lola Van Wagenen is a member of the Mormon History Assn. and the author of "Sister-Wives and Suffragists: Polygamy and the Politics of Woman Suffrage, 1870 to 1896."

Reports that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a big supporter of Proposition 8 should sadden all Mormons. Based on the unique history of Mormons, there is no religious group in our country that should be more tolerant of “nontraditional” forms of marriage than those of us whose ancestors were polygamist Mormons, who were persecuted because of their “nontraditional” marriages.

Have today’s Latter-day Saints forgotten that in the 19th century, our ancestors were violently and relentlessly attacked for their “peculiar institution”? Have they forgotten that they pleaded for understanding and tried in vain to prove that they were good parents? Have they forgotten that Utah territory gave our great-great-grandmothers the right to vote in part to prove that they were not downtrodden, and that these ancestors prayed to the Lord for the protection of “celestial marriage” against the hatred directed at Mormons?

Our polygamous ancestors were accused of being incapable of providing loving homes for their children. Who knows better than we do that this was untrue? Who can deny that our “nontraditional” ancestors left a heritage of hardworking, high-achieving progeny. And yet the fallacy that “nontraditional” marriages erode and destroy family values is one of the main attacks being used against gay and lesbian couples by LDS proponents of Proposition 8.

Most Mormons today would concede that much of the continuing prejudice against the LDS church persists because of our history of “nontraditional” marriage, even though 118 years have passed since the church abandoned polygamy. Still, what religious group has known more hatred and persecution in America than our families? And it lingers. Have today’s Mormons not learned to fight against prejudice and the vilification of people who happen to be different?

Returning to my Mormon roots as a historian has deepened my appreciation for, and gratitude to, my ancestors -- for their struggles and their sacrifices that living in “nontraditional” marriages demanded. My great-great-grandfather was jailed for his marriage, a history that I share with so many practicing Mormons. Given the Mormon experience, why are today’s Latter-day Saints not in the vanguard of pleading for acceptance, equal rights and compassion for all Americans? They should be standing up in opposition to Proposition 8, knowing that loving homes and good parenting can come equally from “nontraditional” or “traditional” marriages.