The LDS Church, Gay Rights, and Religious Freedom in Utah

Our newest contributor to the blog, Christopher Jones, needs no introduction. He has posted here before, and posts regularly at the excellent blog Juvenile Instructor. Chris is a Ph.D. student at William and Mary, where he plans to work on earlier American religious history, and down the road a bit he plans to post on John Wigger's new biography of Francis Asbury. But his first post today as our newest regular contributor concerns some big news coming out of Utah yesterday. Welcome to Chris!

Late last night, I received word from friends in Utah that an official representing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read a prepared statement before the Salt Lake City Council declaring the church’s support of two measures aimed at protecting the housing and employment rights of the gay and lesbian community. Utah newspapers quickly picked up the story, and shortly after the statement was read, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of the ordinances. By this morning, national news outlets and political websites were reporting on this rather surprising development, especially given the heavily publicized involvement of the LDS Church in California’s Proposition 8 battle over the legality of gay marriage last year and the church’s recent history of not lobbying government officials in the form of public statements released from church headquarters.

While this certainly marks a momentous shift in LDS discourse on gay rights, those hoping that last night’s episode represents a small step toward the LDS Church recognizing the validity of gay marriages will be disappointed. The official statement was clear on this point:

The Church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage. They are also entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters. The Church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, there is already some rhetorical backlash coming from Utah’s more conservative state legislators, which is notable not in and of itself, but rather because it points to the fact that with the LDS Church’s support, the push for nondiscriminatory laws could soon pass at the state level:

House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the press has been more active in talking about a possible legislative repeal than lawmakers themselves. But he said it would be "interesting" to watch how the church's statement moves public opinion.

"History has proven that the side of the issue [church officials] take has public-opinion sway," Clark said. "Public-opinion sway has a sway on legislators."

But while much of the media is focusing on this episode as a significant occurrence in the ongoing saga within Mormon (and Utah) circles over marriage rights (which it certainly is), the recent developments in Salt Lake City speak to larger issues, too. Perhaps most significantly, the ordinances passed last evening included a clause specifically protecting religious organizations. The inclusion of such clauses follows the precedent pioneered by the bill passed through New Hampshire’s legislature in June. It apparently is working to undercut one of the main talking points of advocates of traditional marriage---that the legalization of same-sex marriage (or, in the case of Utah, the enactment of housing and employment rights for the LGBTQ community) threatens religious freedom.

It will be interesting to see whether other cities and states follow suit and include similar clauses to protect religious freedoms as efforts spread to recognize the rights and marriages of same-sex couples. For students and scholars of American religion, this is particularly true, as the role of religion in public discourse and society continues to manifest its consistent presence and considerable influence.


John G. Turner said…
Welcome aboard, Chris.

Great post. I was also surprised to see the news, but I think the church has some genuine pastoral concern over the tension caused over the Proposition 8 battle.

I didn't know about the religious organizations clause. That sort of thing won't satisfy the ideologically pure on either side of the issue, but it seems a reasonable way to move forward to me.
spencer said…
great work, Chris. Now go back to your reading for Rushforth's grad seminar.
Christopher said…
Thanks, John.

And yeah, it'll be quite interesting to see if other cities and states pick up the religious organizations clause as a compromise of sorts.
Christopher said…
Haha, thanks Spencer. No reading left. Just writing--first draft due Monday.
Nate Oman said…
We had an event at the law school last week where this issue got discussed. I was talking with a Washington & Lee professor who testified before the DC city council on the need for religious exemptions and protections in the district's proposed gay marriage statute. According to her, there was strong opposition to such exemptions among both council members and LGBT activists at the meeting.
Christopher said…
That's interesting, Nate.

There is some evidence that such clauses (and the LDS church's advocacy of the legislation this week) are beginning to pay off. Andrew Sullivan, who has long been vocally critical of the Mormon church's involvement in Prop 8 and just last week called for ads hyping up Mormonism's racist past, published an article today praising the move by the Mormons as a legitimate compromise that "gays should and must reciprocate." "I can respect that position because I can respect the sincerity of that religious belief and see in this stance a genuine attempt to reach out and respect the rights of gay citizens in certain basic respects."
Melissa said…
It's about time the LDS Church softened on this issue. I am gay, and I gotta tell you, there is NO reason why my sexual preference should be on the public radar screen. We don't like our lives being a dividing force, but we won't suffer in silence anymore. I am glad the LDS church is starting to see the inhumanity in the way we are treated. This new stance is at least a positive start.