My view: Who is my neighbor?

This essay was published in the Deseret News Jan 10,2014

It’s a complex equation for Utahns: practicing the principle of unconditional love on the one hand, and cherishing traditional conceptions of gender roles and family on the other.

As Utahns grapple with the implications of last month’s court decisions regarding same-sex marriage, we have the opportunity to accept the beautiful and challenging invitation that is part of all religious traditions — to care about the well-being of the person who is most different from us, a person with whom we may deeply disagree. How do we follow this exhortation when it comes to our LGBT/same-sex attracted brothers and sisters? It’s a complex equation: practicing the principle of unconditional love on the one hand, and cherishing traditional conceptions of gender roles and family on the other.

In the coming months, Utahns have an opportunity to do both. State Sen. Steve Urquart, R-St. George, will introduce Senate Bill 100, the Utah Housing and Employment Opportunity Act that would provide the same kind of opportunity to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people that the rest of us enjoy when it comes to housing and employment. Far from challenging a traditional worldview or threatening our right to worship, this bill would actually support the long-held Utah tradition of fairness and decency.

The LDS Church was a supportive voice in 2009 for the Salt Lake City municipal ordinance that banned housing and employment discrimination against LGBT people. Since that time, 17 other cities and towns from Logan to West Valley City have followed suit — but a patchwork of municipal ordinances makes compliance difficult and costly. To avoid inefficiency and ensure that all Utahns enjoy the same opportunities, we need a statewide law.

Although I cannot speak for the LDS Church, I can attest to how my faith informs support of this legislation. Mormons have a long tradition of tying temporal welfare to spiritual principles. When a gay person is denied a home and a way to make a living simply for being who he or she is — and institutions ranging from the American Psychological Association to the LDS Church have acknowledged that being gay is not a choice — the values of family and hard work are undermined. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is still legal in this state; it can and does happen here. Must our gay sons and daughters leave Utah to be free from the fear of being evicted or fired at any time?

This bill would not remove the protections that already exist for religious organizations. Churches would retain the right to hire whom they wish and manage their housing facilities as they see fit. For example, BYU and BYU-approved dorms would continue to rent according to the principles of the Honor Code. The bill would not affect public accommodations such as restrooms. It is a reasonable proposal that will strengthen families and reassure potential employers that if they move to Utah, all their employees will have opportunity here.

Given the rapid pace of change in the prevailing attitudes toward LGBT people, many of us may feel fearful and cut adrift in uncharted waters. But while fear can save us from imminent physical danger, it is not a helpful emotion as citizens seek to make their communities harmonious and loving places. In the same statement that expressed dismay at Judge Robert Shelby’s initial ruling that legalized gay marriage, the LDS Church emphasized that “all people should be treated with respect.”

Supporting this year’s nondiscrimination legislation is a way to put that respect into action. Find the LGBT person at work, in your neighborhood, or at church, and ask what this legislation would mean to him or her, then contact your state representative. The history of Utah speaks to the burden of bitter persecution and exclusion, and we have a special responsibility to use our conscience to guide us as we manifest our principles and do all we can to make workplaces and neighborhoods places of opportunity for all.

Erika Munson is a mother of five from Sandy, Utah, and a founder of Mormons Building Bridges — an organization dedicated to making homes and congregations safe and welcoming for LGBT/SSA people and supporting those individuals.

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