Top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called this week for passage of laws granting statewide protections against housing and employment discrimination for gay and lesbian Utah residents — as long as those measures safeguard religious freedom.
The move, one LGBT advocates have been pushing for years, provides a major boost for the prospects of a state nondiscrimination statute. Such proposals have been bottled up in the legislature for years, despite the church’s historic endorsement of similar protections in Salt Lake City ordinances in 2009.
Utah’s predominant faith issued the plea for such measures at all levels of government during a rare news conference.
“We call on local, state and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation — protections which are not available in many parts of the country,” said church apostle Dallin H. Oaks.
The trade-off? A protection of people and private organizations to hold to their beliefs without pressure or public attacks.
“When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser,” Oaks said.
“Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender.”
The LDS Church still preaches that sex — other than that between a legally married man and woman — run contrary to the laws of God and thus opposes same-sex marriage.
The Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention take the same stand, and oppose a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act as well.
State Rep. Jacob Anderegg, who has offered a bill to protect religious individuals’ ability to refuse to marry same-sex couples, spoke about the importance of the church’s position.
“Let’s be frank: The 800-pound gorilla in the room is: Does the LDS Church get behind it?” said Anderegg, a Republican.
“If the LDS Church gets behind it and gives its blessing, then 81 percent of the body who are LDS will likely get behind it. And it’s not because the church is coming out and saying, ‘Vote this way or that way,’ but an endorsement from them does carry weight.”
In 2009, the LDS Church endorsed two Salt Lake City ordinances barring housing and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It marked the first time the faith endorsed specific, pro-gay rights legislation.
Nearly 20 Utah cities and counties have passed nondiscrimination ordinances, according to Equality Utah, which has advocated for the laws. But efforts to codify those protections statewide have come up short.
The church reiterated that private, nongovernmental organizations should be able to determine what standards they uphold for their own members.
There have been concerns, for example, about how such a law might require church-owned Brigham Young University to allow same-sex couples to share student housing.
Oaks acknowledged that many state legislatures are considering laws relating to LGBT issues of discrimination and the church “is on record as favoring such measures.”
At the same time, the apostle decried what he described as “the steady erosion of treasured (religious) freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution.”
For evidence, the Mormon apostle noted California schools’ refusal to recognize Christian student groups simply because those organizations require their own leaders to be Christian and to Houston city lawyers subpoenaing the sermons and notes of pastors who opposed parts of a law on religious grounds.
The push for gay rights was prompted by “centuries of ridicule, persecution and even violence against homosexuals,” said Neill Marriott, second counselor in the church’s Young Women general presidency.
“Ultimately, most of society recognized that such treatment was simply wrong, and that such basic human rights as securing a place to live should not depend on a person’s sexual orientation.”
The LDS Church does not support same-sex marriage, Marriott said. “But God is loving and merciful. His heart reaches out to all of his children equally, and he expects us to treat each other with love and fairness.”