“Church & State” examines the remarkable true story of an inexperienced gay activist who, in partnership with a Salt Lake City law firm and members of the local LGBTQ community, successfully ended Utah’s ban on gay marriage.
Mark Lawrence, a middle-aged gay man, led the charge for gay marriage equality in Utah. He’s a bit of an acquired taste (he’s so off-putting to some that it made him something of a liability when the fight got started) and had absolutely zero experience with activism of any kind. This is a man who persevered and wouldn’t back down. Lawrence is credited for getting the campaign off the ground.
Lawrence founded the “Restore Our Humanity” NGO for the purpose of fundraising to help with the expenses of the lawsuit. However, he needed someone to assist him to get it going and hit a wall of negativity from everyone among the national groups and organizations he reached out to.
Finally, he found a small law firm who was actually willing to take on the case, headed by lawyer Peggy Tomsic.
Tomsic would not only be taking on the State of Utah, but the far-reaching Mormon Church of Latter-Day Saints. One aspect the film examines is how Mormons control much more of the state than we may realize. A large (“too large?” as the film asks) number of the state legislators are indeed Mormons and are more than willing to stand by their beliefs rather than do what is moral and right. Going into this battle, they have the politicians, the money and the high ground.
This was one of the first same-sex marriage cases to be tried in a federal court. The State of Utah was massively unprepared for the historic ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The State was so confident in their chances that they didn’t have a Stay of Implementation ready to go, which is common practice in cases like this.
A full seventeen days would go by with hundreds of same-sex couples applying for and receiving their marriage licenses before the stay was finally filed.
Directed by Holly Tuckett and Kendall Wilcox, this film is an important examination of the power that the Church of Latter Day Saints has over the Utah courts, the setbacks experienced on the way to toppling the gay marriage ban, and how it takes a lawyer with not only the will to fight but one who has a personal stake in the outcome.
Peggy Tomsic identifies as lesbian. She wanted to be able to marry her partner and legally adopt their son. The stakes were personal for Tomsic and very high for her, Mark Lawrence, and history entire. Watching Peggy Tomsic’s drive and determination should be inspiring to all.
As for Lawrence, he begins to have a major conflict with both the defendants and Tomsic once their case goes to appeal. His excitement and enthusiasm are completely understandable but he’s much too brash and abrasive. As the trial progresses, we witness him become less of a leader and more of a liability to the cause. When a national LGBTQ organization would lend support to Peggy Tomsic, Lawrence felt betrayed. He wanted this to stay small and grassroots, just like it was in the beginning.
Eventually Lawrence would disband “Restore Our Humanity,” pull back from the spotlight and eventually state (with a defeated tone) “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t.”
The filmmakers make great use of their archival footage. While the Church of Latter-Day Saints refused to be interviewed for the documentary (did we think they would’ve agreed to a meeting?) the audience bears witness to some horrible moments of inhumanity. The worst being a Mormon elder(!) who basically condones the brutal beating of a gay man.
His statement is frightening not only in the fact that it comes from a man who gives spiritual guidance to thousands of people but in how it is a way of thinking that exists today and is fueled by many of this country’s modern religious leaders. My, how things haven’t changed.
While Tuckett and Wilcox don’t shy away from presenting the hypocrisies of the church, their true focus of the film is the triumphant underdog tale where “the little guy” toppled the giant and made history.
“Church & State” is an extremely important film about a watershed moment in American History that deserves to be remembered as more than a footnote.
Homophobia and racism are at an all-time high in America and their fires are being nourished by many of the very leaders who swore to protect the rights of all individuals. To see a film that celebrates such a seemingly impossible triumph over hatred gives one hope.
And to the members of the LGBTQ community who still feel marginalized by society, this film is a reminder that things can change and the hatred that permeates throughout society can be overcome.
This film exists to remind the men and women in those communities that regardless of what the antiquated laws of this country may tell them, justice and acceptance can be found.
“Church & State” is available via on-demand (check cable listings)