Mormon Church Announces Big Change In Stance On Gay Rights

Photo: THE TRAVEL LIBRARY/REX USA.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was lauded by some Tuesday for announcing a new position on gay rights. In a rare press conference in Salt Lake City, the Mormon Church said it supported measures that provide statewide legal protections to LGBT people in Utah. The move makes public a shift in the church's stance, and throws support behind an anti-discrimination law being debated in the state.

It seems historic — but there's one big caveat. In exchange, they also want to protect the rights of religious people to discriminate against LGBT people. 

At their news conference, church leaders — among them Elders Jeffrey R. Holland, Dallin H. Oaks, and D. Todd Christofferson — urged Utah to pass reforms giving statewide protection to LGBT citizens against housing and employment discrimination. But, the way the church framed its argument won’t exactly make LGBT advocates jump for joy. Neill Marriott, a prominent women’s leader in the church, set up the church’s conflict this way: “The debate we speak of today is about how to affirm rights for some without taking away from the rights of others,” Marriott said. “On one side of the debate, we have advocates of LGBT rights.”

Then, she talked about how being gay is a sin in the church, with the comforting (?) aside that God is merciful. And, that's where the issues start: First of all, framing the issue as one of gay rights vs. religious rights is problematic; as The New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal notes, the right to freedom of religion is already pretty well protected in that Bill of Rights thing we have. The debate is not over gay rights vs. religious rights; it’s about having gay rights vs. not having them.

The Mormon Church, founded in 1830, is one of the newest of the major religions, and yet it maintains a hardline, conservative stance against ordaining women and including LGBT people. John Dehlin, a Mormon man who runs a podcast about his faith, is facing potential excommunication for speaking out about gay and women's rights. And, Kate Kelly, a Mormon woman advocating for women's inclusion in the priesthood, was forced to leave the Church.

Photographed by Winnie Au.
The church's orthodox viewpoint was evident in Tuesday's announcement. Elder Oaks argued that recent advancements in the gay-rights movement have directly chipped away at religious rights. “Those who seek the protection of religious conscience and expression and the free exercise of their religion look with alarm at the steady erosion of treasured freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution,” Oaks told the press. “It is one of today’s great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for LGBT rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public-policy proposals.”

Oaks rattled off what he called disturbing examples of this persecution, including the case of Peter Vidmar, an Olympian and anti-gay-marriage activist who was supposed to lead the 2012 U.S. Olympic delegation. Vidmar resigned after his financial and activist support for anti-gay-marriage legislation in California was made public.

The difference here is that Vidmar was not exercising a right, as LGBT individuals do when they apply for housing, look for a job, or go to school and expect equal treatment. Vidmar was accepting a privilege — in this case, the unique privilege of representing all Americans at the Olympics. As it happened, Vidmar wasn't barred from participating in the Olympics; he resigned voluntarily.
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Not acknowledging that distinction reveals a lot about what seems to be the church’s intentions: Ensuring that Mormon leadership doesn’t have to respect LGBT rights in Mormon institutions. That would give the church continued latitude to punish LGBT students at Brigham Young University under the school’s honor code, for example. Right now, that honor code forces gays to avoid demonstrating “homosexual behavior” or risk expulsion.

Elder Holland said that religious groups should get to be in charge of setting their own criteria for “employment, honor code standards, and accreditation at church schools." All “church-owned businesses or entities that are directly related to the purposes and functions of the church must have the same latitude,” he said. In Utah, which is more than 50 percent Mormon, that encompasses a lot of entities.

Holland also said he was in favor of protecting, by way of example, a Catholic pharmacist morally opposed to carrying and dispensing the morning-after pill, and a Mormon doctor opposed to performing artificial insemination for an LGBT couple. A religious person “should not be forced against his or her conscience to do so, especially when others are readily available to perform that function.”

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