Top Mormon leaders made an announcement lending their support for Utah legislation protecting the rights of members of the LGBT community with respect to housing and employment, but did so conditionally. They expressed concern that it was unfair for people to potentially lose their job or housing because of their sexual orientation, but did so with the caveat that there should be exceptions to the law based on religious beliefs. The announcement represents a significant step from the church leadership, but many in the LGBT community have mixed reactions to it, feeling that their position fell just short of being a gesture of true inclusiveness.
On the surface of it, the expressed support of the right to employment and housing statewide appears to signify a huge shift in attitude from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Reading the fine print, however, it does not represent much of a shift in position at all. Church leaders were quick to point out that this announcement did not represent any change in the teaching opposing homosexuality. With the requirement that those religiously opposed to homosexuality have the right to engage in discrimination on that basis, they have essentially supported the passing of legislation which will apply to everyone else but them. LGBT activists are pointing to this as a game of smoke and mirrors.
What the expression of support has allowed Mormon leaders to do, however, is put front-and-center the agenda of protecting “religious freedoms.” This is a concept that is getting a lot of traction in states where the battle over same-sex marriage is still being waged in courtrooms and state legislatures. The battle to prevent the granting of rights and protections to LGBT people has shifted from a question of equal rights and access to a discussion of the protection of religious freedom. Anti-gay activists nationwide are changing tactics to that rather than be seen as bigots opposing people’s rights as citizens, they might be re-cast as crusaders for the rights of religious organizations. While this may or may not be the intention of the Mormon leadership with the announcement, the move does look very similar to tactics being employed in other places.
The LGBT community in Utah now faces a bit of a conundrum. Whereas states like Massachusetts have had these basic rights to employment and housing guaranteed since the late 80s, Utah still does not have that legislative protection in place. Incomplete support though it might be, with the number of Mormon legislators in the state, embracing the leadership’s olive branch might at least get them some small measure of official protection. It is difficult for members of the gay community who have grown up with those rights guaranteed to understand the Catch 22 before those in Utah now. Given the unique relationship between the Mormon church and the state government, it may be difficult for anyone from outside the state to grasp their struggle.
The support from Mormon leaders, even conditional as it is, has to be seen by a huge portion of the LGBT community in the state as a first step toward the rights they have been fighting for so long to achieve. They will find it difficult to spurn support that could be so helpful in getting at least part of what they have been seeking. Opening the door to allowing religious exemption from civil rights legislation, however, has the potential to land the community in essentially the same place they began in short order. It is only one of the things to consider as LGBT leaders decide how to respond to this gesture from the church. Every civil rights movement in history has had to weigh the question of how much or little to accept in the name of progress toward the goal, and this is no different. Until these rights are federally mandated and enforced, struggles like this will be played out across the country in many different states.
By Jim Malone
Image courtesy of Jay Jacobsen – Flickr License