After years of behind-the-scenes meetings between LGBT advocates and top Mormon leaders, church officials Tuesday announced for the first time general support for legislation to protect LGBT people in areas such as housing and employment – as long as accommodations are made to protect the freedom of religious people who oppose such measures.
“We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values,” read a statement released at a midday Salt Lake City news conference.
Church officials emphasized that there has been no change of the doctrine. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints teaches that it goes against the law of God to have sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.
LGBT advocates had mixed reactions to the announcement, which mirrors a national discussion about how to balance civil rights of gays and lesbians with the religious freedom of conservatives of different faiths who oppose gay equality, among other liberalizing moves.
“As a matter of policy, there’s no ‘there’ there,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “The so-called religious exemption is the size of five Mack trucks. It entirely neuters their proposal.” However, that doesn’t mean the announcement won’t impact the topic, he said. “In the relationship..between Mormon families and their LGBT children and LGBT friends, 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, married Utah state senator who was involved in talks with church leaders in recent years, has a different take.
“As long as: ‘It’s the whole enchilada or nothing,’ as long as you’re using rhetoric to rev up your base…and not involved in saying: ‘Let’s find that common ground,’ when you find that kind of good will, like the church has…it’s a golden moment and that’s here we need to be going in America,” he said Tuesday.
At the news conference — for which the church broke into its regular programming to broadcast on its radio and television stations — and in a statement mailed to faith-based activists around the country, Mormon leaders said the church “will support legislation where it is being sought to provide protections in housing, employment and some other areas where LGBT people do not have protections, while ensuring that religious freedom is not compromised…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,” its statement said.
“This appeal for a balanced approach between religious and gay rights does not represent a change or shift in doctrine for the Church,” said the statement, which was e-mailed to faith activists from Lance Walker of the LDS church’s D.C. advocacy office. “It does represent a desire to bring people together, to encourage mutually respectful dialogue in what has become a highly polarized national debate.”
Dabakis said talks began in 2009. Before then, 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.”
[This post has been updated.]