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Mormon Church's Newfound Support of Gay Rights Tied to Religious Exemption Law

Rights advocates argue that the church’s gay rights announcement is really about ensuring that individuals and entities can still discriminate against people based on their religious beliefs.

by Colleen Curry
Jan 29 2015, 5:30pm

Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP

In an apparent gesture of conciliation to homosexuals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called a rare press conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday to announce an adjustment of its position against LGBT rights. But critics argue that the Mormon Church's true motive is to ensure religious exemptions from anti-discrimination statutes.

Church leaders noted at the start of the meeting Tuesday that they hold press conferences only when they have something significant to announce.

"We want to share with you our concerns about the increasing tensions and polarization between advocates of religious freedom on the one hand, and advocates of gay rights on the other," Elder D. Todd Christofferson said. "We are suggesting a way forward in which those with different views on these complex issues can together seek for solutions that will be fair to everyone."

Other officials who spoke at the press conference specified that the church could lend its support to laws protecting LGBT individuals from housing and employment discrimination — two topics that happen to be on the docket for Utah's legislature to debate this session — but only if religious institutions and individuals are also protected from having to provide services that violate their beliefs.

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"We urgently need laws that protect faith communities and individuals against discrimination and retaliation," Elder Dallin Oaks said.

Rights proponents have noted that the US Bill of Rights already protects religious freedom, and charge that the church's insistence on coupling religious exemptions with its newfound acceptance of anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people is purposefully designed to in fact cement the church's ability to discriminate.

"What they're saying in concept is they could support something like that, but with massive carve-outs a mile wide," Jason Rahlan, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBT-rights group, told VICE News. "Those religious exemptions effectively neuter their public policy proposals."

HRC pointed out that doctors would still be allowed to deny medical care, pharmacists would be allowed to refuse to fill prescriptions, and landlords and business operators would be allowed to refuse service to LGBT people in the name of religion.

"As a matter of public policy, it appears deeply flawed," HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. "All Americans should have the right to be employed, receive housing and services in environments free of discrimination. We await the day the church embraces that fully, without any exceptions or exemptions."

Only 21 states have passed anti-discrimination laws prohibiting employers from discriminating against LGBT people; 18 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. Utah is not currently among them, though a bill in the state's legislature seeks to expand an existing anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in employment and housing — sectors that church leaders specified throughout their presentation.

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The timing of the church's announcement is noteworthy because the state's legislative session began on Monday. State Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund told the Deseret News, a Utah paper owned by a subsidiary of a Mormon Church holding company, that some legislators had been waiting to hear the church's position on the anti-discrimination bill.

"I think this probably clarifies the issue a little bit to the point where it will start to bring some people together to look at melding the two issues so that we come up with something that works for everybody," Okerland told the paper.

There are currently two religious protection bills in the legislature: one that would allow religious figures to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, which were legalized by a Supreme Court decision last fall, and another that would prevent religious organizations and individuals from having to perform or recognize any rite, service, or ordinance that is inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

State House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan told the Deseret News that if the anti-discrimination bill were to pass, the religious protections laws would likely have to go "hand in hand" with it.

"The church knows it's fighting a losing battle in terms of gay marriage, so they have to find a new way to keep discriminating under the name of religious freedom," the publisher of Mormonism 101, a website that documents and often criticizes the church, told VICE News. He asked to remain anonymous because he feared retribution from angry church members.

He sees Tuesday's announcement less as a change in the church's acceptance of gay people and more as a change in political strategy. The church has supported Proposition 8 and other campaigns to ban gay marriage for year, but now the "battle is over," he said.

"Church leaders are pretty old and they have a long history of fighting civil rights," he added, noting that they did not incorporate black members fully into the church until 1978, and fought against an equal rights amendment for women. He pointed to the church's outsized influence on Utah politics — 62 percent of the state is Mormon.

"It's very ironic that they've been campaigning against gay rights for like 30 years now," he said. "They lost that battle, and now they're complaining that everybody is persecuting them. It's a very strange perspective."

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Matt Martinich, a researcher at the Cumorah Project, a think tank that monitors the church's growth, told VICE News that the criticism launched at the church in the wake of Tuesday's announcement misunderstood the scope of the problems Mormons face.

"I think they wanted to articulate that it's a delicate balance in terms of making sure that the religious beliefs of certain religious groups are being protected," he said, "and that it's important to make sure there are laws to protect discrimination but also individual differences and how people view their own morality and ethics."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen