Mormon leaders sought Tuesday to put their conservative church on middle ground in a major culture war issue — saying for the first time that they support some legal anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, so long as the religious freedom of those who oppose gay equality is taken into account.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints staged a national news conference in Salt Lake City to promote the announcement, breaking into its own radio and television broadcasts to carry it live. While church officials emphasized that there was no change in doctrine, the comments went further than other traditional faith groups have by placing religious freedom and gay equality on an equal moral footing.
Gay rights advocates said the statement was symbolically powerful and could influence some pending state measures, while some religious-freedom advocates said the Mormons are being unrealistic in thinking the two objectives can be treated equally.
“The Church believes that a ‘fairness for all’ approach, which strives to balance reasonable safeguards for LGBT people while protecting key religious rights, is the best way to overcome the sharp divisions and present cultural divide in our nation,” the Mormon Church said in a statement. The appeal represents “a desire to bring people together, to encourage mutually respectful dialogue in what has become a highly polarized national debate… . We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that it is immoral to have sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman.
LGBT advocates had mixed reactions to the announcement.
The church’s announcement drew mixed reactions from the gay, lesbian and transgender community in Nevada, whose population is 4 percent to 5 percent Mormon, according to a 2014 Gallup survey.
While some said the “fairness for all” stance by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a step in the right direction, others said it doesn’t go far enough to tear down barriers in the way of same-sex marriages that are legal in Nevada and 35 other states.
One gay man, Lance Taubold, an entertainer and writer involved in the Las Vegas Valley’s gay community, said he wonders about the timing of the announcement — that somewhat repeats one made by the Mormon church in late December — and if it’s tied to the possibility that a Mormon and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might again make a bid to become the Republican Party candidate for U.S. president.
“They’re kind of jumping on the band wagon to be more liberal but they don’t want to tread on religious beliefs,” Taubold said. He added that although Romey hasn’t thrown his hat in the ring, it appears to be too coincidental that his Mormon backers are showing more liberal tendencies to perhaps gain broader support should he decide to make another run for the White House.
Kristen Howey, a spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said a suggestion that Tuesday’s announcement is related to to an election “is unfounded.”
“The topic has been in discussion by Church leaders for many months, even years,” she wrote in an email to the Review-Journal.
Lauren Scott, executive director of a Sparks-based civil rights lobbying group for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people, said the church’s announcement “sounds like they’re trying to have (their) cake and eat it too.”
“They’re trying to walk this fine line,” Scott said. “It’s a very slippery slope.”
Ever since enactment of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act “religious organizations have continued to seek avenues to extend their political power and influence in matters of commerce at the state level,” Scott wrote in an email. “Thankfully, the Ninth Circuit Court has ruled and marriage equality has been secured in Nevada, without exclusion or limitation. … Equality cannot have conditions. It must be absolute.”
“As a matter of policy, there’s no ‘there’ there,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. Allowing for religious exemptions to basic gay equality “entirely neuters their proposal.” But among Mormon families and friends, he says, “I have no doubt that this will be deeply meaningful… . From the perspective of symbolism, this is a step forward in the continued acceptance of LGBT people by the church.”
But Jim Dabakis, a gay, Mormon Utah state senator who was involved in talks with church leaders in recent years, defended the church’s desire to find a common ground.
“When you find that kind of good will like the church has … it’s a golden moment, and that’s where we need to be going in America,” he said Tuesday.
The statement wouldn’t have an impact on discriminatory practices within the church, such as the ban on gay people in relationships serving in ministry leadership. But Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and progressive advocate who is writing a book on the history of LGBT issues in the church, said the informal treatment of gay couples and families can vary widely between congregations.
“Today’s statement was a call for balance and fairness and good discussion surrounding religious freedom and nondiscrimination, but wasn’t a response to or an endorsement of any particular piece of legislation,” Howey wrote. “Ultimately, it’s up to lawmakers and those they represent to create legislation — what was offered today were the principles by which that legislation should be measured.”
Howey noted differences between Tuesday’s announcement and a Dec. 20 mormonsandgays.org website post that said, “Church leaders recognize the existence and difficulty of same gender attraction and acknowledge the difference between having same-sex attraction and acting on it. They censure only the latter, and leaders strongly advocate for understanding, inclusion, and kindness toward people of all gender orientations.”
“The difference today was that you had four senior Church leaders clearly stating a position and principles,” she said in her email late Tuesday.
She wrote that the Dec. 20 post is not from the church’s site, yet it contains “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” logo above a section titled: “Love One Another: A Discussion of Same-Sex Attraction.”
At Tuesday’s news conference, church elder Dallin Oaks said, “We believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with differing values.
“We reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstances or differences in gender or sexual orientation,” Oaks said.
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.