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, as 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. Though church officials emphasized that there was no change in doctrine, the move 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.
“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 church’s statement could have an immediate impact on two proposed measures in Utah. One would amend the state’s anti-discrimination and fair-housing acts to include prohibitions on LGBT discrimination in housing and employment. The other would give officials who are authorized to solemnize marriages the ability to refuse to do so as long as others are available.
Belonging to a small but prominent faith group, Mormons are substantially more conservative on social issues, including gay equality, than Americans in general, polls show. But as a long-persecuted minority, they can be sensitive to the topic of discrimination and wary of being culture warriors. The Mormon Church has been reeling since 2008, when its support for a California measure forbidding gay marriage caused a backlash, including by Mormons uncomfortable with their church being prominently involved in a political issue.
Greg Prince, a Mormon historian and progressive advocate who is writing a book on the history of LGBT issues in the church, said that Tuesday’s announcement is part of the continued fallout from 2008.
“It shows [Mormons’] hypersensitivity to public opinion and to the amount of negative opinion that came that caught them off guard,” Prince said. “It caused them to do a very careful rethinking of just what their position is.”
Prince said Mormonism has changed significantly in recent decades on the topic of sexuality. In the 1970s, he said, a student could be expelled from a Mormon school for being gay. About 10 years ago, the church started allowing openly gay missionaries — as long as they are celibate.
“We have come a long way,” Prince said.
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 Prince said the informal treatment of gay couples and families can vary widely among congregations.
Dabakis said the announcement was the result of years of talks that opened between Salt Lake City gay leaders and the church after the bruising 2008 measure in California. For years, there have been small meetings at people’s homes and other places.
Before 2009, he said of church leaders and LGBT advocates, “we shared the same air but could not communicate. Breaking those blocks down was one of the great experiences of my life.”
Mormon leaders last spoke out on anti-discrimination in 2009, when they supported a Salt Lake City measure to ban certain types of discrimination against gay people. The measure didn’t go far and had no enforcement mechanism.
The Mormon Church also has been part of a high-profile coalition of largely conservative faith groups concerned about the impact of legal recognition of liberalizing policies such as same-sex marriage.
Some of those concerns were raised at Tuesday’s Salt Lake City news conference. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland — one of the church’s top leaders, called apostles — said he was concerned that doctors might be forced to perform abortions or help gay couples who wish to conceive.
Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist Convention leader who is a prominent player in that coalition of faith groups, said he was disappointed by the Mormon announcement.
“I think the Latter-day Saints are well-intentioned but naive on where the reality stands today,” he wrote in a statement. “I do not think, in most instances, sexual orientation ought to matter in housing or employment, but of course the proposals to address these concerns inevitably lead to targeted assaults on religious liberty.”
Hunter Schwarz contributed to this report.