Jim Birrell writes a letter to his Representative

January 7, 2014

Dear Representative ___,

Thank you for sending me this survey, as I had hoped to have communication with you prior to your upcoming legislative session. These are divided times, and that concerns me. I spent decades as a BYU faculty member teaching courses to prospective teachers on human diversity and culture, teaching and learning, human nature and religious doctrines. As a faculty member in the field of multicultural education, I spent years traveling and building relationships between BYU, the LDS Church, and diverse communities, agencies, and personalities. I worked with all types of people, and fell in love with them all. I found God in all of them, despite our different theologies, theories, moralities, preferences, experiences, and explanations. I loved what each came to teach me, and how a humble approach to others that honored who they were—by meeting them where they were at, opened doors for the Church, for my personal and professional growth, and for our students. I thought this was the gospel, to reach out and bond with our brothers and sisters on the planet, and to find ways to connect with them. The salt of the earth, I used to tell my BYU students demanded that they engaged the world; tolerance does not mean we have to agree, but it does require us to engage. And why would we not want to engage our spirit brothers and sisters on this planet, whatever form or orientation they show up in. After all, as I would explain, unless God screwed up when He made this world, we can assume the worlds we create will be like this. What will we do when we are the divine parents of all sorts of people, gay and straight, sinners and saints, lost and found, dark and white, prejudiced and loving, striving and falling? What will we do when it is not “those people” we are dealing with, but our eternal children, created by us and sent to earths also created by us, to demonstrate the glory of God in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of all God’s babies, and God does not fail, because God can make all things work together for good; thus, God can find the good in all things! Can we?

That was my message at BYU. I remind you, dear Representative, that you do represent a wide range of community members. In your survey you asked the question, “How well do you feel that I represent the views and beliefs of our district?” With all due respect, implicit in that question is a sense of singular agreement about the views and beliefs of our community members. I know you realize that not everyone you represent in District 6 would agree that there is a single view and belief about any topic you must deal with this session. And if you are truly committed to the founding principles, then minority views are of equal concern.

Representative, there is much talk about “the will of the people”, regarding what happened in 2004 with Amendment 3. Some of us, however, have reconsidered our positions and would recast a different vote today, given what we have come to understand about living and governing since that time. Because I tend to make friends with a wide range of people, as I truly love diversity—and because as the “salt of the earth” we ought to get out of the salt bottle (salt doesn’t need salting), I know many great souls who live in our District and who hope, as I do, that the circle of your experience and perspective is wide and fair, wise and considered in the complexities of paradox you are called upon to deal with in all these important matters. I hope you are a man who understands complexity and values diversity.

I especially want to comment on the anti-discrimination bill. Years ago, before my only son “came out,” I would have led the charge in defense of individual rights of conscience. My revulsion of homosexuality—at that time, inherent in my religious upbringing, had to be examined in light of my parental responsibility. My son was gay, which was no easy reality to work through—especially as a BYU professor teaching courses on human diversity during Prop 8. I lost a lot of friends, Represenative, because when asked why I didn’t man phone banks and such during that time, and didn’t I care about saving marriage, I had to tell the truth; no, marriage is not in trouble by gays—so much so as by straights. Besides, I could do nothing to further increase the pain young gay LDS kids were feeling, especially my son. I could not be responsible for doing anything that further sent them the message that this church drew near to them with their lips but their heart and actions were often far from them.

In other words, no, I was not concerned about saving marriage—as marriage is not on life-support or even threatened by gay marriage—but I am concerned about saving lives. The marriage I observed a week ago of two women—one of which was a former student—in no way weakened your marriage or mine. In many ways it legitimized the importance of it, as another couple who had been living together were now legally married, and thrilled at the possibilities of being recognized as a family—as not all families look the same.

Of course I understand the religious doctrines that my friend, another politican, discussed with me about legitimizing gay sex by sanctioning gay marriage, but the issue is far more complex, as is the tension between liberty and equality, minority and majority interests that this matter now raises for thoughtful people who understand the world as complex and paradoxical. I ask you, therefore, to take a long view of this entire matter. I think, Representative, thoughtful people see on the horizon the day when marriage equality is the law of the land. Some may disagree, but it is only a matter of time. I could be wrong, but I think I am right about this.

For that reason, and because it is the moral thing to do, Representative, please work to pass anti-discrimination laws that protect gays from being fired or evicted merely because they are gay. There is no moral argument that can be made for this, including honoring “conscience.” A conscience is not always a good indicator of what is moral and right; I know you get this from history—including how some in the past acted from “conscience” towards LDS people.

I can hardly believe that any good person could be opposed to passing laws that ensure fairness for all people, especially those who are gay and had no more say about it than someone who is born black, or white, or disabled—even the Church is moving toward accepting that people can be gay from birth. How can this people call themselves after the name of Christ and fail to pass laws that ensure the legitimate and fair protections of all God’s children in their world? How could they possibly imagine Jesus saying to his followers, “Now get out there and protect your rights to fire or evict those Samaritans.” How could Him who spoke of loving enemies and others as the self ever approve of failing to protect the vulnerable where possible, including God’s gay babies, and do so by masking prejudice as conscience?

Please, Representative, I beg you to consider this question, if one of your children shocks you one day—and it is a shocking experience for many of us—with the statement, “Dad, I am gay,” and you realize that others want to deny your child the right to work at their business or rent their houses, or that they could be fired merely for being gay—nothing more—how would you use your authority in this matter? There are many of us, who hope that your heart is wider and your perspective wiser than those who fight against fairness for gays, by arguing that being fair to gays is unfair to them.

I lived through the Civil Rights era, Representative. If Utah fails to protect minority rights, especially in basic human rights for safety in employment and housing, the fallout will one day injure the Church in huge ways. If you were around during the Civil Rights era, then I implore you to remember how afraid many LDS members were that the government would force the Church to marry Blacks in the temple. We were so frightened; we were so wrong!

One day gay marriage will be the law in Utah. And in that day the nation will look dimly upon how the people in Utah failed to protect basic human access to jobs and housing. When LGBT people can legally marry, and yet have no protection for housing and employment—for no other reason than their being gay, and that Utah business owners can hang signs about their businesses that read, Straights Only, Utah will pay an economic price. What’s next, businesses that, for reasons of conscience serve Mormons Only? That is only a short distance from someone making the case for, Whites Only—or in other words, I hire and serve ONLY People like Me. Will our motto then be, Utah: A Pretty Great State—if you are in the right group?

Once you go down that slippery slope, you take the nation backwards. You legitimize our lower human emotions by calling them “conscience,” rather than encouraging people to grow in their acceptance of others, as Jesus taught. You could never convince me that Jesus would approve of a self-proclaimed LDS or religious florist turning away a gay couple because they disagreed with gay marriage and found the thought of gay sex revolting; think a higher thought!

You could never make the case, from a religious and doctrinal perspective, that Christ would sanction a world where human nature should be coddled under the guise of honoring “conscience”, when what is at stake is unconscionable, let alone unChristian, and not a testament to our commitment to our covenants as much as our ignorance and inability to love and serve all of God’s babies, however they show up in the world. This is the complete opposite of Ammon and King Lamoni. It is the wrong argument. Please don’t take us backwards as a state and nation, by arguing that failure to protect the powerless against the wealthy and powerful is somehow moral.

I have heard my politician friend’s argument about the need to protect the Church. I understand their interests, but again, how can you say in one breath that you honor the founding principles and then fail to protect minority interests against power? This friend explained how those in opposition were protecting BYU housing in Provo, lest BYU students have to share housing with gay people—for instance. My goodness! I spent my entire career at BYU trying to help people move past this kind of thinking.

Representative, I beg you to consider what you are doing in these matters. I beg you to search your heart for any time you ever saw Jesus act to protect power and wealth, including the mainstream Church of His day, against the stones of those who judged others as sinful and would marginalize (even destroy) them in the name of honoring the rights of power and the majority. I understand why Moroni sought to pull power down. I truly do. The interests of power, while not unimportant, are only part of what this nation is about. I hope you get that. If you do, and if you act with openness, courage, and fairness—making Utah a safer place for our gay LDS and family members to work and live in, then I will give you a 10 rating next year on question #13—How well do you feel that I represent the (varied) views and (honest) beliefs of OUR district?

Whatever the complexities are, imagination and openness, compromise and caring will find a way and build a bridge between diverse thinking people in Utah, and make a path into the future that will not come back and set us back, making us look small and even hateful to those we would otherwise wish to invite to hear why our church makes us like Christ. Please, build that bridge and protect against real injustice for my gay child—who is also God’s gay son. Please challenge those who would ask you to do what Christ would never have done as an employer or landlord in Utah—reject laws of fairness for those among us who have to rely upon the courts for help because the hearts of their neighbors too often violate the second great commandment, when they deny to others what they would not want denied to themselves!

Thank you for your time,

Jim Birrell

3 comments for “Jim Birrell writes a letter to his Representative

  1. January 21, 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Jim Birrell! Excellent letter, true to your form of building bridges and truly respecting and valuing diversity. Five years ago you challenged me in my more dogmatic and easy view of the world as well, and I’ve always appreciated it. The world is truly complex, with truth to be found in all places. Best wishes to you!

    • January 21, 2014 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you, my friend.

      Tonight I am watching the Biggest Loser. This was makeover night, where the families were able to see their loved one in their new skin, new confidence, and new attitude.

      I told my wife that we all must lose the weight of the world we carry, so that we can stand before God as the Biggest Losers. Then we win the game of life. We no longer have to be right about everything, or carry guilt or shame, or what we perceive are the judgments of people whose opinions are really none of our business. We can shed the emotional weight and live in true freedom for the first time.

      • January 23, 2014 at 3:20 pm

        We spend so much time and energy trying to beat our own ideas into other people’s heads, and most of the time we’re not really communicating with others at all, just satisfying our own desire to be right. It’s exhausting. I’ve recently been trying to return to a more civil discourse that has more empathy and understanding. For awhile I got bogged down in the biting, assumptive debates that seem to prevail.

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