Today’s announcement by LDS Church leaders in support of legislation banning discrimination against LGBT individuals in Utah is welcome, although as someone who has been involved in fighting for the rights of LGBT individuals for more than four decades, I couldn’t help but wonder why such a message has been so long in coming. Anti-discrimination in housing and employment, as well as in religious belief and practice, should be an article for faith for all Americans and all religions practicing their faith in the United States. What I found missing from the announcement was an acknowledgment of the real, significant and sustained cost to individuals, families, communities and congregations that has resulted not only from the failure of the State to protect its citizens from discriminatory practices but a Church culture that has allowed LGBT members to be treated in unchristian ways. It is impossible to calculate the pain, suffering and death in Utah (and among Mormons elsewhere) resulting from discrimination of LGBT individuals. That is, it is important to recognize that even if the legislation had been in place, it would not have eliminated discriminatory behavior toward individual LGBT members and their families.
One of the positive aspects of the press conference was the inclusion of a woman leader, Neill Marriott, as one of the spokespersons. Her bright turquoise jacket was a refreshing contrast to the blacks and dark blues of the men. More significant was her message, not merely an affirmation of what the apostles said, but an enlightened, individual voice—a woman’s voice that spoke of “centuries of ridicule, persecution and even violence against homosexuals.” She added, perhaps with unintended irony given the fact that Utah has been so resistant to passing anti-discriminatory legislation, “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.” Especially welcome was her affirmation of the central gospel message of love: “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.”
One hopes that the announcement will put pressure on a most unprogressive state legislature to actually pass anti-discriminatory legislation that has long been held up in committee. While there isn’t much hope that the Church’s announcement will influence most other states (including the South which uniformly has almost no state-level protections for LGBT individuals), hopefully, it might influence other states in the Inter-Mountain area (including Idaho and Wyoming) where there are significant numbers of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Oaks expressed disapproval of discrimination against religious freedom, citing, for example, the pressure put on LDS Olympian Peter Vidmar and Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for their support of California’s Proposition 8. But Elder Oaks surely must know of Latter-day Saints who were sanctioned or punished by their leaders for opposing Proposition 8, contrary to official statements that there would be no action against those who were in opposition to the measure. Also, it remains to be seen if those who support same-sex marriage on the grounds that it is a Constitutionally-protected right will be subject to Church discipline.
Elder Oaks states, “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.” One could also argue that when religious people are “publicly intimidated, retaliated against” and censured or punished for respectfully voicing sincere reservations about certain Church teachings and practices, the Church is the loser. I know these are complicated matters and that there is a difference between a church and a state, but it seems to me that we need more latitude, more tolerance and more love for responsible dissenting voices, whether in a faith or a civil context.
I appreciated Elder Holland’s coda to the announcement: “Above all . . . the debate about balancing religious and gay rights — often a polarizing predicament—should be civil and respectful. . . . Nothing is achieved if either side resorts to bullying, political point scoring or accusations of bigotry.” While I would want to make a distinction between the first two of these, which are always wrong, and the third, which can be based on actual bigotry, Elder Holland’s point about civil and respectful debate is something everyone can practice as is Sister Marriott’s message about treating each other with fairness and love.