The media and others seem to be incredibly impressed by this. Me, not so much. Unlike unquestioning newspaper types (I long for the days of real journalists) I do not take everything at face value.
I guess the church’s new-found determination in this area might be impressive if you are a Utah legislator sitting on a bill for the last several sessions that would have provided for the kinds of protections the church leaders finally stood up to support today. It might be impressive if you were waiting for the church to signal to legislators that they are okay with it so that it could finally be passed. It seems likely that now that the Utah bill has official church backing in a land where separation of church and state is the law it may finally pass.
My home state of Wisconsin passed the first bill like that, prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations back in 1982. Perhaps today’s press conference would have been more impressive if it had been a little less than thirty-three years after Wisconsin’s landmark legislation.
It would also be more impressive if the Mormon Church were not so vociferously against same-sex marriage while at the same time professing their church’s love for us queer folk, or if they weren’t for other kinds of discrimination against us. They can probably see that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a national bill that would do what the Utah bill will do but on a national scale, is destined for eventual passage. They can also see that marriage equality is inevitable, especially given that there are only fifteen states left without it. According to the apostles at today’s press conference the scriptures are clear about marriage being reserved for straight men and women only. While the fight against marriage equality is clearly being lost and they know there is nothing they can do to stop it they are standing their ground on that issue. Today’s little press conference makes them appear to be genuinely loving toward us. Until you read between the lines.
According to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints website’s Same-Sex Attraction page (yes, there is such a thing, at https://www.lds.org/topics/same-gender-attraction?lang=eng) there is nothing wrong with someone being attracted to the same sex, unless and until they act upon it sexually, at which point it becomes a sin because it is sex outside of marriage. And, of course, marriage is reserved for a man and a woman. So there is a Catch-22 there, where queer Mormons are destined to live lonely lives attracted to members of the same sex but unable to do anything about it, or they act upon it and live in sin according to the teachings of their church. This explains the closeted gay men on television’s “My Husband’s Not Gay”, a show where Mormon men who are clearly interested in other men get married to women because of social and religious pressure and then act as if they are okay with sublimating themselves like that. The show is laughable in that a person cannot just change the essence of who they are by making such a decision. They can deny themselves, but they can’t change themselves. Like the Catholic Church hating the sin but loving the sinner the Mormon Church loves us dearly, but with qualifications and strictures based on scriptures.
Because Mormon church doctrine says that all people should be loved and that same-sex attraction is okay (again, as a reminder, as long as it’s not acted upon) the apostles today positioned themselves as enlightened bearers of truth and justice. But at the same time they pushed for the ability to discriminate against LGBT people in other ways in the guise of religious freedom. There are laws being proposed around the country that pursue a very similar agenda–they allow cake makers, civil wedding officiants, and any other businesspeople who have a moral issue with queer customers to discriminate on the basis of “religious freedom”. This part of today’s statement is being glossed over by the media in favor of the major announcement of support for discrimination protections. The media are clearly forgetting that discrimination against African-Americans was justified with Biblical arguments as well. If we had allowed that kind of religious freedom to supersede anti-discrimination laws such as the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 we’d have a lot farther to go in our civil rights struggles (not that we don’t have a long way to go still, but it would be an even much harder climb to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mountaintop).
According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Elder Dallin Oaks also talked about “the steady erosion of treasured [religious] freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution.”
The paper went on to say that he elaborated by relating several specific cases. The first was a case in California where Christian student groups were not recognized because they required their leaders to be Christian. To me, that makes sense. I might want to join the chess club because I have an interest in chess even if I don’t play. If the chess club could disallow me because of that it wouldn’t be right. Likewise, every gay group I know allows non-gay members to be part of the group. The likelihood is that a non-Christian is probably not going to want to join the high school Christian club any more than most straight boys would want to join the high school gay club (with the exception of gay-straight alliances, where that is encouraged).
The second was a case in Texas where subpoenas were served for sermons and notes of ministers who opposed a particular law based on moral grounds. I would agree with Elder Oaks that such a request seems a violation of privacy and constitutionally suspect. What he did not tell the assembled reporters was that the subpoena was ultimately withdrawn and the ministers were not required to give up their notes.
The last two examples were cases where individuals were pressured to resign positions due to their opposition to marriage equality. According to Oaks the first was a Mormon gymnast who resigned as the symbolic head of the U. S. Olympic team in London and the second was the Mozilla executive who resigned after a public outcry. However, these cases are examples of church equivocation as much as state-sanctioned religious discrimination. While Oaks made it sound like anyone who opposes marriage equality risks losing their jobs and livelihood both of these are not examples of law run amok, but of free-market economics at work. When you are in positions of power (whether symbolic or not) and you make public statements about volatile issues you take the risk of a potential backlash. It is true that people have lost jobs and respect as a result of using racist language, homophobic and transphobic language, and more, but it isn’t because of a lack of religious freedom. I believe that these individuals have the right to speak their minds but they also have to understand that if the public doesn’t like what they are saying and enough pressure is put on their companies or organizations they run the risk of losing those positions. If I’m the President of a company in Utah and we are losing customers and money because one of my top employees is spouting off anti-Mormon rhetoric you can bet that employee will be looking for a new job soon. It is the way of the world, and it has nothing to do with the Constitution or our laws protecting or not protecting anyone. It is the nature of boycotts and citizens putting their dollars where their business and politics meet. I don’t go to Mel Gibson movies, buy Ted Nugent records, or watch Fox “News” because I believe in making consumer choices that match my worldview. Ted Nugent is free to speak his mind. I don’t have to support him in that.
Oaks was quoted by the Tribune as saying, “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. Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender.” To that I would say Elder Oaks is dead wrong. It is not the same. He needs to be reminded that race, gender, and sexual orientation are not choices, whereas choosing to make public statements that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic leaves you open to scrutiny by people who may decide to boycott your employer or organization. This is not to say that people do not have a right to state their opinions; just that the public has a right to respond to those opinions, particularly when the person stating them is in the public eye.
While I appreciate the Mormon Church supporting non-discrimination laws I don’t believe it is entirely altruistic and I don’t fully believe that they are on board with queer equality in all its manifestations. As a gay man I will credit them for this step forward while still holding them to task for the distance they have yet to come. The Salt Lake Tribune article about today’s announcement ended with a quote from the Latter Day Saints’ news release about the issue that begged for compromise with the quote, “Neither side may get all they want. We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values.” This is a little unnerving. I would agree that we must learn to live with others who might not share the same values, but if the Mormon Church really wants me to believe that they love me and care about my rights they might start by not referring to me as the other side. That is as telling as anything else they said today.