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When the LDS Church released its latest statement on immigration Friday, it offered a little something for everyone as the clock ticked down to next Saturday's showdown at the Utah Republican Convention.
The statement featured strong support of a guest-worker measure, but failed to mention HB116 by name. It was an official church statement, but was not signed by the faith's ruling First Presidency. It discouraged illegal immigration, but sought mechanics to allow undocumented immigrants already here to "square themselves with the law."
For Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who is Mormon and a key architect of Utah's new guest-worker law, there was no question the statement came from the top, and a vote to repeal HB116 would run counter to the LDS leadership's wishes.
"This statement leaves no doubt," Bramble said. "None."
But to Mormon Ron Mortensen, co-founder of the Utah Coalition on Illegal Immigration, the lack of a First Presidency signature and a direct reference to HB116 watered down the statement's overall impact as a potential game-changer.
"I have never known the church to make doctrine by press release," Mortensen said. "I cannot conceive of the church doing that."
The statement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began with an overview of the immigration issue, noting an area of agreement by many that it's a federal issue.
In perhaps a knowing nod to the faith's own roots in which Mormons were forced to flee settlements in the 1800s the statement expressed worries about policies aimed at a specific group of people.
"The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern, especially when race, culture or religion are involved," the statement read. "This should give pause to any policy that contemplates targeting any one group, particularly if that group comes mostly from one heritage."
Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, noted the statement's emphasis that the "bedrock moral issue ... is how we treat each other as children of God."
"It doesn't say the bedrock issue is protecting borders," Monson said.
Though the immediate intended audience for the statement may be Republican delegates who will consider calling for HB116's repeal next week at the state GOP convention, Monson said, the church also is "sending a strong message to the Utah Legislature."
In some sense, Monson added, the statement's power comes not from who issued it but from the sheer number of LDS statements on immigration that all move in the same direction "toward compassion and civility, with a little dash of law and order."
Michael Clara, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Assembly and a Mormon, said the church's teachings are founded in Christian tenets of loving your neighbor, and its stance on HB116 is anchored to a belief in compassion for others.
He accused those trying to dismiss the statement because it lacked a First Presidency signature of grasping at straws.
"The church will come out with a position and people say, 'Well, it didn't come from the prophet,' " Clara said. "But if it's signed by the prophet, they'll say, 'Well, I'm not going to believe it until I hear it from Jesus Christ himself.' It's a moving goal post."
But Joanna Brooks, an LDS writer and religious scholar in Southern California, believes Mormons would more readily embrace their church's position on immigration if it didn't come in a news release.
"The act of saying it over the pulpit in [LDS] General Conference would be a game-changer," said Brooks, who is in Salt Lake City for a Mormon meeting. "The act of standing present at the pulpit or issuing it in a First Presidency letter that would then be read over the pulpit would telegraph undeniable authority."
Still, the LDS Church Public Affairs Department has said that "official statements on the [LDS] church websites are approved at the highest level."
For some Republican delegates, however, the new statement is less about whether it is from the First Presidency and more about it not naming HB116.
"The church supports an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law," the statement said, "and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship."
Some interpret this as another endorsement of the guest-worker bill, which was signed by Gov. Gary Herbert with an approving LDS Presiding Bishop H. David Burton in attendance.
The law which doesn't take effect until July 2013, or 120 days after a federal waiver is granted seeks to levy either a $2,500 or $1,000 fine on undocumented workers in Utah and requires they pass background checks before being granted work visas for themselves and their families.
Dan Deuel, a state GOP delegate from Weber County, said a signature by the First Presidency as had been done when the church dived into the Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage debate in California wouldn't make a difference to him, but mentioning HB116 might have.
"The church doesn't dictate my vote," he said. "I look for my own answers, and there are other ways to do what the church is asking."
The repeal resolution, which has passed in Washington, Utah and Salt Lake GOP county conventions while failing in Weber and Davis, is nonbinding and has no practical effect of undoing the law.
Jeremy Roberts, who launched a website and PR campaign in support of HB116 earlier this week, said he would incorporate the church's statement into his plan of attack and hopes the delegates listen.
"If the delegates, generally speaking, have good information, they make the right decision," he said. "I hope they include this in their decision making."
Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who has been leading the charge in trying to get the federal government to greenlight HB116, welcomed the new LDS Church statement.
"It's nice they would be a little more direct because a lot of people for the repeal of HB116 say that's not the prophet speaking from the pulpit," Shurtleff said. "But it seems, from the statement, they're getting frustrated the church is and it is an official statement."
It's also one that Brandon Beckham, who launched the website to repeal HB116, finds to his liking as well.
"It's a great statement for our cause," he said.
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Peggy Fletcher Stack and Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.
P The Utah Republican Party Convention begins June 18 at 10 a.m. at the South Towne Expo Center, 9575 S. State St., Sandy.