Prophets and politics

by Ray Ring

Listen to an exclusive audio interview with the author.

 REXBURG, IDAHO

"America's Family Community." That's the motto of this Mormon college town, displayed on street-side monuments and in tall letters on the movie-theater marquee. Apparently, it's a formula for success. Rexburg thrives on a burst of construction and population growth. More than 30,000 residents occupy a grid of wide, orderly streets, amid vast potato fields that unfurl toward the majestic Teton Peaks. Plenty of Rexburg parents, following the Mormon prescription for big families, have six or seven children. One guy tells me his next-door neighbors have 13 children, and a family on the other side has 16. The newly expanded hospital maternity unit is already crowded with new babies. If Rexburg is any indication, Mormons are taking over the world.

They certainly run this town. An estimated 97 percent of the locals belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- making Rexburg possibly the most Mormon of all towns. The brilliant white-stone 57,000-square-foot Mormon temple, opened eight months ago, looms on a hilltop, glowing day and night; intense floodlights make Mormon temples the brightest objects in the Western nights. The college that sprawls beside the temple -- Brigham Young University-Idaho -- now boasts an annual enrollment of 21,000 students, more than double what it had eight years ago.

Mormon mores -- some written into local laws -- permeate the community. Rexburg has no real saloon and no supply of hard liquor; only four restaurants are licensed to serve beer or wine. There is only one coffee shop, and it keeps up with the meager caffeine demand by brewing each cup individually. When I cruise town on a pleasant Saturday night in mid-September, the hottest action comes down in a bowling alley: Balls crash down all 16 lanes while the spinning pins and the bowlers' teeth glow even whiter under the ultraviolet lighting.

But something louder and bigger draws me to Rexburg: the religious culture wars, which heat up every election season. The prophets who run the Mormon Church -- the church president, his two counselors and a dozen top apostles, based in the headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah -- encourage all Mormons to be active in politics. The prophets are said to be relaying the word of God, and while they generally don't endorse candidates, they take stands on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. As a result, most Mormons vote very Republican. In the last presidential election, nearly 92 percent of the votes in Madison County (Rexburg is the county seat) went to George W. Bush -- securing Rexburg yet another title: the nation's most Republican town.

On the most critical issues, the Mormon prophets go all out, urging their followers to conduct targeted campaigns. That helps explain why, Thursday evenings in the downtown building of a health-products company owned by one of Idaho's richest Mormons, groups of Rexburg college students and townies get together. They're using the company's call center to make call after call to California voters, trying to persuade them to pass a ballot measure in the November election. It's titled Proposition 8 -- the California Marriage Protection Amendment -- and it aims to prevent gay and lesbian people from getting married in that state.

An eight-year battle led to Proposition 8. In 2000, with Mormon encouragement and campaign money, California voters passed a measure banning gay marriage. It blew up again last May, when the California Supreme Court justices narrowly ruled (four to three) that the ban violated the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The court likened it to the bans many states once had against interracial marriage, all of which were tossed out long ago. Now, Proposition 8 aims to overrule the California Supreme Court, by amending the state Constitution.

Many religious groups have jumped into the campaign; the Mormon Church takes the lead. In June, the church's top prophets commanded Mormons "to do all you can" to work for Proposition 8 and donate money to the campaign. Mormon leaders throughout California read the instructions to their congregations, which have more than 750,000 members. Word spread everywhere in the Mormon realm. In August, the prophets added pages of elaboration: "The Church has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a husband and a wife united in bonds of matrimony. ... Any dilution of the traditional definition of marriage will further erode the already weakened stability of marriages and family generally ... with harmful consequences for society."

Mormon volunteers, additionally inspired by special TV broadcasts beamed from the headquarters into their churches, go door-to-door in California for Proposition 8. In other states, they run phone banks and do whatever they can. Their effort is strongest in the West, because there are more Mormons in this region than anywhere else. Chad Reiser, a leader of the BYU-Idaho College Republican Club, says the phone banks are not an official club activity, but "we do try to get as many people involved as possible. Proposition 8 is a moral issue" related to church doctrine -- "something we believe is important to all people."

Kim B. Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho and a pillar of Rexburg's Mormon establishment, receives me in his office on a sunny Tuesday morning. His windows look out on construction cranes erecting a huge events center that will have a 15,000-seat auditorium and 10 basketball courts. He talks of more university projects. He appears confident and wears a pinstripe charcoal suit and red-pattern necktie, with a well-thumbed 2,000-page book of scriptures within reach. He grew up a Western Mormon in Utah and Washington, earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University and ran the Harvard Business School. He left Harvard three years ago, because the top prophet invited him to shape this college. It was "like getting a call from Moses," Clark says.

When I ask Clark about his church's campaign against gay marriage in California, I note that some people consider it a violation of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights -- which mandate the separation of church and state. He strongly disagrees. Those who would limit his church's work against homosexuality, he says, "cloak their arguments in other terms ... (such as) civil rights ... but their fundamental purpose is to destroy religion in our society."

He says these battles will occur more and more frequently: "We're seeing a change in the political environment and interest groups. ... It takes many different forms. It's not directed at any particular religion. It's driven by people who are against religion."

As over-the-top as that sounds, Proposition 8 is a Western showdown with national implications. Hollywood celebrities, civil-rights groups, dissident Mormons, mega-businesses such as Google, politicians and other interests around the country have also jumped in. Shortly, the election results on Proposition 8 will create a new landmark signifying how much influence religions can assert on our modern society. Behind all the fury, I find something unexpected in the Rexburg area. It seems to me that, despite appearances, the Mormon Church may be losing its grip.

Religious culture wars erupt constantly in this country, in squabbles over reciting prayers in government meetings, putting Christian monuments on public property, mentioning God in the Pledge of Allegiance -- even over God's opinion about building a gas pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48 states. (Sarah Palin says He backs the pipeline.)

Gay rights and abortion are the two fiercest battlegrounds. But since a basic right to abortion was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, abortion foes have only been able to chip fragments off that right (requiring underage girls to get permission from a parent, and so on); they also push for appointing sympathetic Supreme Court justices who could theoretically overturn Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, gay marriage has gradually taken on more importance.

Overt conflicts over legislating the rights of gays and lesbians began some three decades ago, and ever since, the West has been a fierce battleground. In the early 1990s, liberal-leaning Colorado cities and the state government made laws protecting gays from housing and employment discrimination. In response, anti-gay religious forces successfully pushed a 1992 amendment to the Colorado Constitution, stating that gays could not be considered a minority and therefore could not claim discrimination. That earned Colorado an ugly nickname -- "The Hate State" -- until 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

James Dobson, the right-wing evangelical who runs the Focus on the Family group, moved his headquarters from California to Colorado Springs in 1991 and rode the anti-gay campaign to worldwide prominence. Today, Dobson has a daily TV show, and his daily radio program runs on more than 5,000 stations. When he mobilized his followers against abortion-rights Democratic senators running for re-election several years ago, The New York Times crowned him as "the nation's most influential evangelical leader ... (showing) a new level of direct partisan engagement."

The West's reputation for anti-gayness was furthered by the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. Two homophobic men tied Shepard to a fence outside Laramie, pistol-whipped him and left him to die. The murder became the basis for a widely performed play and documentary movie -- The Laramie Project -- and other movies and books also helped raise awareness about the struggles of gays and lesbians. Many governments around the country have responded by passing laws prohibiting discrimination against gay people.

The anti-gay religious forces have tried to hold the line on marriage. In 1996, they pushed the Defense of Marriage Act through a then-Republican Congress. The law says that the federal government does not recognize gay marriage, and that all states are not required to recognize gay marriages held in the few states that allow it (at the moment, only Massachusetts, Connecticut and California do). Anti-gay advocates have also pushed laws banning gay marriage in many states, including Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The bans prevent gays from getting married in courthouses, and prevent pro-gay-marriage preachers from performing ceremonies. Gay-rights advocates have pushed back, winning compromises, mainly an increasing acceptance of domestic partnerships or "civil unions." Civil unions can provide some of the rights inherent in marriage, but it's complicated; for couples trying to share health insurance, for instance, it depends on interactions of many different state laws and insurance companies' policies. Even many Democrats -- the party that gets the most gay votes -- feel compelled to take stands against gay marriage. Although he supports civil unions, Barack Obama, for instance, describes marriage as "a union between a man and a woman. ... For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God's in the mix."

Today, the West's key players on gay marriage include the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit lawfirm based in Scottsdale, Ariz. It has 40 lawyers on staff, according to its Web site, and works with "nearly 1,100 attorneys nationwide" advocating for a Christian presence in national parks, city council meetings and other venues. The Alliance Defense Fund often goes to court against gay marriage, and represents the "Yes on Proposition 8" campaign in California. "God has granted us an amazing opportunity to serve Him" in courtrooms, the firm says. "God created marriage as the unity of one man and one woman. This has been both the legal and traditional understanding of a marriage … for millennia, since Eden. … There is no more critical battle for our nation's future."

On the other side, the West is home to groups such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Based in Albuquerque, N.M., it challenges the growing evangelical Christian influence inside the U.S. military. Generals and other officers often pressure soldiers to join in Christian prayers and read the Bible -- even to play Christian video games. And the military's evangelical tone includes "virulent homophobia," says the group's founder, Mikey Weinstein. He's a Jewish graduate of the Air Force Academy, a lawyer and registered Republican, who speaks rapid-fire about "religious predation by military superiors (who are) fundamentalist Christians -- the draconian specter of military command influence" being used to commit "spiritual rape."

More than 9,000 active and retired military people -- including gays and lesbians in uniform, "highly decorated combat vets" and generals -- have complained to Weinstein's group about the pressure they face, he says. The group currently has two lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Defense in an attempt to make the military evangelicals back off. The group's supporters include former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and the California Council of Churches IMPACT group, which represents more than 5,000 churches serving 21 Protestant denominations. "We have some gay people on the advisory board" of the group, Weinstein says, and "it's possible -- though not on our scope right now" that someday he'll go to court specifically to try to force the military to be more accepting of gays and gay marriage. "Anybody who is against gay rights," he says, "is an enemy of ours."

And a basic regional character trait can mean rough going for the anti-gay forces: Westerners in general show a remarkable skepticism toward organized religion. Oregon is the least church-going state in the country, with 27 percent of its adults saying they're unaffiliated with any religion. Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all rank above 20 percent, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Forum on Religion & Public Life. (Only New England rivals the West in the rate of rejecting organized religion.)

Whatever happens in November, California's Proposition 8 will be an important landmark. Not only does California have 37 million residents, it also has a legendary trend-setting role. And California's increasing diversity raises the odds that a majority of its voters would support gay marriage in 2008.

Thus, Proposition 8 has exploded into the most expensive, extensive gay-marriage battle ever. The forces pushing it include all the Mormons who've made individual campaign donations totaling more than $9 million (more than 40 percent of the war chest, the Mormons for Proposition 8 group reported in mid-October). Conservative Catholics, including the Knights of Columbus, have kicked in more than $1 million. Other notable backers include Dobson's Focus on the Family (about $500,000), a wealthy board member of that group ($450,000), an Orthodox Jewish group based in New York City, evangelical groups from all over, miscellaneous Baptists and Muslims and Sikhs, the National Organization for Marriage (about $950,000), the American Family Association ($500,000), a couple of right-wing foundations ($1.5 million), and countless Republicans who don't necessarily belong to any of the other groups.

The forces against Proposition 8 include local governments, such as the Palm Springs City Council. Episcopal bishops oppose it, preaching tolerance, as does a lone Catholic priest in the Fresno area, who recently told his congregation that he's gay. Many businesses oppose Proposition 8, including the giant utility, Pacific Gas & Electric ($250,000 to the campaign against Proposition 8), AT&T ($25,000), and the Levi Strauss jeans company ($25,000 from the company and $100,000 from the company's chairman emeritus and his wife). The Valley Industry and Commerce Association in the Los Angeles area opposes 8. Google, based in California's Silicon Valley, normally stays out of politics, but Sergey Brin, the company's co-founder and president, offers this statement: "While we respect the strongly held beliefs that people have on both sides of this argument, we see this fundamentally as an issue of equality. We should not eliminate anyone's fundamental rights, whatever their sexuality, to marry the person they love."

Actor Brad Pitt ($100,000) and director Steven Spielberg ($100,000), many unions, Unitarians, miscellaneous rabbis and Presbyterians, psychiatrists' and psychologists' groups, the Gray Panthers and the American Civil Liberties Union ($1.5 million) oppose Proposition 8. So does the Human Rights Campaign ($2 million), the National Center for Lesbian Rights ($500,000), the Chinese Rainbow Association, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force ($200,000-plus) and Tim Gill, the Denver-based founder of the Quark software company ($350,000). Democratic New York Gov. David Paterson has come out against it, as has Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Democratic California Sen. Dianne Feinstein tells a gay magazine: "The views of Californians on this issue have changed over time ... I believe we should uphold the ability of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers who are gay and lesbian to enter into the contract of marriage." The Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group, runs Republicans Against 8, which pays for TV ads against the proposition.

Californians passed their initial gay-marriage ban by a wide margin (61 percent to 39 percent). The margin on Proposition 8 is closer and less certain. Polling up to late September indicated a slim majority had emerged in support of gay marriage. Then the first statewide TV ads from the other side aired -- claiming gay marriage is being forced on churches and public school curriculums -- and the polling suddenly tipped the other way. With a total of $27 million donated to the Proposition 8 campaign, and $19 million against it, it'll likely be a photo finish.

Many straight people -- regardless of their religion or lack of it -- have become more accepting of gay marriage. "They know a lot more about gay people. Maybe they know someone who is gay, which makes a huge difference. They know gay people are just people," says Bruce Bastian, who grew up Mormon in Idaho and then moved to Utah. Eventually, he came out as a gay and gave up the Mormon Church. He got rich by founding the WordPerfect software company, and he's donated more than $1 million to the campaign against Proposition 8.

The Mormons fled the Eastern U.S. in the 1800s to escape religious persecution, and they've done well out West. The 178-year-old church -- an infant compared to most major religions -- has grown rapidly; it has more than 13 million members worldwide, including more than 4 million in the West. Now it's powerful enough to enforce some of its doctrines on whoever lives in its Western strongholds. In Utah, for instance, anyone who wants a glass of hard liquor must join a private club, provide personal information and pay a fee.

At a glance, Rexburg seems to demonstrate what happens when a religion takes over completely. Almost all the city and county officials are Mormon Republicans. The leading industry, BYU-Idaho, has woven Mormon doctrine throughout its classes. Students must obey an honor code that's even more conservative than the main BYU campus in Provo, Utah: no beards, no mustaches below the mouth corners, no hair dyed "unnatural colors," no shorts on campus, no sandals in public places, no "gaucho-style pants above the ankle" and so on. Students live in BYU-approved apartments sporting signs like "Approved Housing for Young Ladies." Curfew is midnight, except on Fridays, when it's extended for one hour.

"Choose your friends carefully," warns a 47-page Mormon rulebook called For the Strength of Youth. "Choose friends who share your values so you can strengthen and encourage each other in living high standards." Watch out for Satan's lures in "websites, concerts, movies, music, video cassettes, DVDs, books, magazines, pictures and other media." As for sexual behavior, even "passionate kissing" is forbidden until the marriage ceremony is performed. The expectation is for Mormons to get married young -- men go on two-year missions when they're 19, and come back ready to settle down.

All the college teachers and staff must also be Mormons in good standing. If they waver, they can be fired -- even the professors have no tenure, no job security. Meanwhile, the Rexburg city government Web site offers information on the "Mormon Way of Doing Business."

What has Rexburg achieved with its sexual taboos and strict moral standards? Conventional wisdom says the town and college provide security -- a safe place to live. But as I dig into the records, I find that in the past year alone, Rexburg has experienced a fair amount of insecurity. There have been many thefts from businesses, residences and parked cars; cases of embezzlement, attempted rape, and domestic abuse; a major drug ring stretching to other states; shots fired in road rage; underage drinking in a Mormon church; attempted suicide; a faked kidnapping; and at least 10 pedestrians run down in crosswalks (two of them died). Child pornography was discovered on two men's computers, and another guy was found to have molested kids for 29 years. In one case of child abuse, a father repeatedly dropped and squeezed his infant, to the point of breaking bones. Some of the incidents seem downright bizarre, fodder for the pages of supermarket tabloids: A man caught masturbating in the city library, and an apparently mentally disturbed person climbing out onto the roof of the temple. In a nearby town, an illegal immigrant impregnated a 9-year-old girl. (She was 10 years old when she gave birth to a 6-pound baby, by caesarian section, in the Rexburg hospital.) A local cop, himself a Mormon, tells me he's seen "countless" child abuse cases, at least six kids beaten to death, and many suicides in his two decades on the job. He says Rexburg's Mormon community is in "total denial" about this kind of stuff. "Religion has nothing to do with crime," he observes. "It comes down to human behavior, human nature."

Rexburg does achieve a superficial sameness among its residents, an exclusion of those who seem different. It feels safe in that sense. People who might want good coffee to be handy, or a drink of hard liquor, or an abortion, or gay sex, or passionate kissing before marriage without shame -- and people who consider such people interesting and worthwhile -- apparently go elsewhere to live.

On a Rexburg Sunday, the streets are especially quiet; the Mormon Church requires its members to attend no less than three hours of Sunday service, plus other family and religious activities. Even the Subway, Quiznos and Cold Stone Creamery are closed. (In a true Battle of the Titans, even Wal-Mart closed on Sundays for the first six months it did business here; then it decided to stay open.) Mormon preaching and music plays on radio and TV all day. Despite the religious grip, though, there is some dissent. Elsewhere, some Mormons have openly called for an end to discrimination against gay people. And dissenters have made themselves heard in the past -- sometimes successfully. Until 1978, the church held that black skin was caused by God's curse, and in its early years, Mormons notoriously embraced polygamy and confined women strictly to child-rearing. (Even today, there are no blacks or women in the church's top leadership roles.)

Affirmation is a worldwide organization of gay and lesbian Mormons, with chapters spread from California to London and Johannesburg, South Africa. PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is a national group with more than 200,000 members. By contacting both groups, I network into a different local scene. It includes Rexburg but centers on Idaho Falls, the effective capital of Mormon Idaho -- those dozen or so counties that lie closest to Utah and have populations that are more than 50 percent Mormon. As I drive the 27 miles from Rexburg to Idaho Falls, a Mormon on the car radio preaches: "We cannot expect God's help if we are unwilling to keep His commandments."

Between the cities, the last cuttings of hay lie baled in the fields. Cottonwoods and brush are turning autumn colors. Idaho Falls has about 53,000 residents, an old downtown on the Snake River banks and a sprawl of newer malls and neighborhoods. A federal nuclear lab and several small non-Mormon colleges draw an array of people who somewhat counterbalance Idaho Falls' Mormon temple, but still, the city is roughly 54 percent Mormon. When July 4th falls on a Sunday, Idaho Falls shifts its fireworks to July 3rd or July 5th. I find Dixie's Diner, which has an American flag flapping overhead and a kitschy 1950s-motif: red vinyl seats and chrome trim. In the banquet room in back, I meet the Gay Sunday Brunch group -- several dozen gay guys and a few lesbians who meet in the diner every Sunday.

Christopher Jones, 33, grew up Mormon in Rexburg and tells me that it was "very confusing." He's sitting beside Danny Yandell, who is 43 and speaks with an Arkansas drawl; Yandell's been around here 14 years working as a surgical nurse. Jones and Yandell have been together about a year and a half and like to go camping, hunting and fishing. They flew to California in August to get married in a Unitarian church. "I wanted a church wedding because I'm spiritual," Yandell says.

Mart Borg, who describes himself as an inactive Mormon, works as a butcher in an Albertson's grocery store. On the side, he runs a hiking-with-llamas group for gays. He went to California this summer to marry the man he's been with for 20 years. "We exchanged rings 20 years ago; we just wanted to make it legal," Borg tells me.

I get to know other gays and lesbians in Mormon Idaho, and some who have roots here but have since moved on. They're teachers, a city planner, experts in this or that at the nuclear lab, a sales manager at a printing plant, and so on. Many grew up in the Mormon Church, and their accomplishments include serving on missions, serving as church leaders, even singing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They felt the church's pressure to live straight lives. Officially, the church seeks to persuade homosexuals to abstain or be heterosexual, through counseling and pressing them to marry members of the opposite sex. "I saw gay men struggling with their sense of self-worth (in counseling), and I didn't see them as an abomination of God," says John Bonner, who grew up gay in Rexburg and now lives in Salt Lake City. Two of his gay friends committed suicide, and he thinks it was directly tied to their Mormon faith. "They saw it as irresolvable."

They tell me that even the ranks of straight Mormons are not monolithic. Jones realized he was gay in grade school, but "took a long time to come out because people in Rexburg are very judgmental." He had two friends who risked coming out while they attended high school in Rexburg. Their Mormon bishops ex-communicated them -- a big deal for faithful Mormons, because their doctrine says they won't join their families and friends in heaven. Jones' sister outed him to his bishop when he was 21. But "that bishop was a very understanding person," Jones says. "He had the opportunity to ex-communicate me and didn't. He wished I'd been celibate (and not gay), but he wasn't pressing the normal gospel of 'men with men is a sin.' He just said, as long as I live a good life, he was happy for me." Jones, who's worked as a bank teller, a Burger King manager, a grocery manager, and at the Idaho Falls Wal-Mart, also still considers himself a Mormon.

And those who reject the Mormon Church still try to maintain ties to Mormon friends and family, including ex-wives, kids, parents and siblings. Often they're accepted in those ranks. When Jones and Yandell came back from California, they had a wedding reception in Idaho Falls, attended by 52 people, most of whom are straight Mormons. They go to Rexburg for family gatherings with Jones' parents, who are devout Mormons; the parents were wary at first, but now they accept Yandell and include him in Easter dinner and family photos. Some high-ranking Mormons in Rexburg tell me they also have family members and friends who are gay or lesbian.

Some still feel it necessary to keep their sexual identity in the closet -- especially those who live in Rexburg. John Schroeder sees both the positives and the negatives. He converted to Mormonism at age 24, and was active in the church for more than 20 years, struggling over his sexual identity. He married in a temple, served as a church elder, and finally came out. Now he heads the physicians' assistant program at Idaho State University in Pocatello, and lives in Idaho Falls. He's been with Mike Tyacke, who works for the lab, moving spent nuclear fuel around the world, for seven years. Schroeder says: "Homophobic tripe is preached from the pulpit of every LDS church every Sunday (while) gay people in the congregation don't speak up." But he adds, "In my eight years of being a very 'out' person in Idaho Falls, I've been interviewed on TV and done debates on gay marriage. People come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'I saw you on TV.' No one has ever come up to me and said anything negative. It's easier to be out now than it used to be."

A local lesbian who has a white-collar job, and wishes to keep her name out of this story, says that in recent years, "the gay and lesbian community here has really bonded. We're an inclusive group. If we were in a big city, we could afford to have internal prejudices. Here, we can't afford it."

Many agree that the turning point here occurred eight years ago. It was a court battle between Theron McGriff, who'd come out as gay, and his ex-wife, over custody of their kids. McGriff's case began in 2000, and in 2004 the Idaho Supreme Court created an Idaho landmark: The court ruled that homosexuality can't be used against a parent in a custody argument unless it's clearly detrimental to the children. The court awarded custody to McGriff's ex-wife on other grounds, but these days, McGriff and his partner, an inactive Mormon who spent time in Rexburg, are still involved in raising McGriff's kids. "One thing I learned," McGriff says, "is that a judge can't break up a family."

When McGriff's battle began, he and his friends got the idea of auctioning off many of his possessions to raise money to help cover his lawyer fees and his child-support payments. They formed a group called Breaking Boundaries, and it's grown to be both substantial and mainstream. It promotes many kinds of diversity, raising money through various auctions, beer festivals and other events, and spreading the money around through grants for community projects including after-school programs for schoolkids. Breaking Boundaries' biggest fund-raiser is a black-tie dinner and auction every Christmas season that rakes in tens of thousands of dollars. "It's THE event of the year for this community," one of the organizers, Ron Folsom, tells me. It's even surpassed the Firemen's Ball and the Inventors' Ball in popularity.

Last December, Breaking Boundaries held the fancy dinner in the Idaho Falls Elks Club; 40 volunteers served dinner to 275 people, and they estimate about one-fourth were gay or lesbian. They had an Egyptian theme, and a Mormon dance team from BYU-Idaho performed in Egyptian costumes. They've already raised more than $30,000 in advance sales for this year's dinner. It's just one sign of how things are changing, even in Mormon Idaho. Sooner or later, some locals say, gay marriage will be recognized everywhere. They may not say it out loud quite yet, but if you listen carefully, you can hear it between the lines.

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