A documentary feature about the landmark Utah case that opened the door to marriage equality might seem to be a no-brainer when it comes to drama and a sense of consequence. But for the filmmakers behind Church and State, the challenge of shaping that story into a film came down to a question that defines most narratives: Who is the hero, and who is the villain?
Superficially, that might seem like an obvious question, defined by the name of the lawsuit itself, Kitchen v. Herbert. Plaintiffs Derek Kitchen, Moudi Sbeity and four others—along with their attorneys, Peggy Tomsic and Jim Magleby—were on the right side of history; Gov. Gary Herbert and the government of Utah, defending the state's Amendment 3 banning same-sex marriage, were the bad guys. Church and State, however, complicates that narrative by exploring behind-the-scenes factors that shaped events before they ever got to a courtroom.
Co-director Holly Tuckett almost wasn't a part of that process—and indeed, she passed on a first opportunity to follow the story. Mark Lawrence—a local activist who began organizing the legal challenge to Amendment 3—approached Tuckett through one of her colleagues in spring 2013, wondering if she'd be interested in working on a documentary about their fight. "At the time, I was coming off of other projects, and really needing to crack down and do some paid work," Tuckett says. "And ... it's Utah. Do we really think he's going to be successful? I don't want to spend the time, only for it not to be successful."
Then, in December 2013, Judge Robert J. Shelby of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Amendment 3, opening the door to same-sex marriage in Utah. Tuckett was then approached during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014 by colleague Andrew James, who asked if she'd be interested in joining a team of four to work on a film about the case as it made its way through the appeals process. "I was like, 'You don't have any money, do you?'" she says. "And he was like, 'Hell no.' I said, 'I don't care, I'm in.' I didn't want to miss out twice on the same opportunity."
Tuckett—along with James, co-director Kendall Wilcox and local filmmaker Torben Bernhard—then began the process of working backward, getting to know Lawrence and how he pulled the pieces of Kitchen v. Herbert together. Along with attorney Tomsic, Lawrence becomes one of the key characters in Church and State—and a complicated one in that a rift ultimately developed between Lawrence and the other key players in the case over his outspoken manner. "For me, it was really important to tell Mark's story," Tuckett says, "because nobody knows who he is. If you go down the street and ask, 'Who's responsible for overturning Amendment 3,' they're going to say 'Derek Kitchen.'"
As for the villains of the piece, that's even more complicated. At times in Church and State, you can see the legal team for Kitchen fighting against national gay-rights organizations, which were concerned that this was the wrong case, from the wrong state, for a federal challenge to same-sex marriage bans. "There came a point where Kate Kendall from [the National Center for Lesbian Rights] said to [Peggy Tomsic], 'You're ruining the national strategy ... you guys should back out,'" Tuckett says. "There was a lot of pushback from other organizations saying, 'Don't do this.'"
Ultimately, the focus came back to the title, Church and State, and the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in fighting against same-sex marriage in Utah and around the country. But even then, it wasn't as simple as demonizing the church, which declined multiple requests to participate in the film. "The Church is this nebulous thing," Tuckett says. "How do you put a face on an entire organization that is against a class of people? Every legislator, [Utah Attorney General] Sean Reyes, most of the A.G.'s office, in every faction, Mormonism was in the picture, fighting back ... I think our full team was interested in letting a broader audience understand, 'This is what they were up against.'"
Yet Tuckett—herself a Utah-raised gay ex-Mormon—found to her surprise through the making of the film that she developed a greater understanding of where the church was coming from in its opposition. "Do I agree with it? No, I don't," she says. "But I do have a better understanding of where they're coming from, and why they make the arguments they make. ... I hope that a lot of people here, who think that they understand the Church, will come away thinking, 'Wow, I never really thought about that, the fact that they are fighting years and years of persecution themselves.' And when people are persecuted, they dig in and they fight back."
While it has taken longer than Tuckett hoped to secure the financing to complete the film, she believes there's still a timeliness to the story as other civil-rights fights continue in America, and a lesson in this story's improbable protagonist on taking on a fight—legal same-sex marriage in Utah?—that nobody believed could be won. "What Mark's character in the film speaks to is, don't sit on the sidelines," Tuckett says. "Do something. Even when you don't think that you're going to be successful, you could potentially be the one who makes the difference."