LDS leaders respond to reaction over their call to balance gay, religious rights

LDS leaders respond to reaction over their call to balance gay, religious rights

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — LDS leaders knew they wouldn't satisfy everyone when they held a news conference Tuesday to call for fairness for both LGBT people and religious people.

So criticism from both ends of the spectrum didn't surprise Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But people who prefer all-or-nothing solutions on either side are avoiding the hard work of balancing LGBT and religious rights, they said Thursday in a visit with the Deseret News.

Elder Oaks and Elder Christofferson said LDS Church leaders will be disappointed if their proposal for laws that protect LGBT people from discrimination while safeguarding religious rights doesn't influence the national debate.

While they expressed gratitude for people on both sides who responded favorably, they said the criticism is a sign they got it right, and that their position is needed.

A response

The harshest criticism from LGBT rights advocates, like that published by New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal, said the church was seeking legal permission to discriminate against gays.

"When I heard that I can tell you my reaction," Elder Oaks said. "I thought, well that illustrates how much we need to have people educated about the principles we are teaching of fairness and balance, because that's a very unbalanced statement.

"I would be ashamed to make a comparable statement saying that nondiscrimination is just trying to wipe out religious freedom," he added. "That would be the equivalent. I'd be ashamed to make that kind of a statement, and I'm sorry that a responsible voice in the New York Times made it. I'm hopeful that he'll see that's not our motivation and that's not the intended effect of what we're doing."

Both church leaders said such criticism is rooted in a belief that God does not exist or that rejects the idea of religious conscience.

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"People who do not believe in God have a very hard time seeing the merit of the free exercise of religion," Elder Oaks said, "and they often make fun of it. They downgrade it."

"Religious conscience is real," Elder Christofferson said, "and though some may or may not have it doesn't detract or take away from the fact that it's a very critical part of many peoples' lives.

"In general, the idea of saying 'this is just a license to discriminate' or 'you're seeking a license to discriminate' is a way of avoiding the hard work of finding a way to balance competing values that are both critically important. Frankly, what we're saying is, we gotta do the hard work. We can't just throw out a slogan and get away with that. It's not good enough."

No absolutes

Elder Oaks said religious people believe God has taught them to love others and provided commandments for the benefit of everyone.

"Those values have built the civilization we have now," he said. "The Western democracies are based on religious principles, and people who've lost sight of that and who can't credit the importance of individual religious conscience or the free exercise of what our conscience leads us to believe, they are poorer in understanding our civilization and in understanding people of religious faith."

Some conservatives and faith leaders worry the LDS Church proposal would open the door to anti-discrimination laws that could hurt religious believers.

"That's very much like taking a position that religious freedom is an absolute and there are no exceptions," Elder Oaks said, "and it should override in any and all circumstances the values of nondiscrimination. We don't believe in that extreme, any more than we believe in the extreme voiced by the New York Times."

These two values — nondiscrimination and religious freedom — for the most part don't compete, but there are areas where they do run up against each other. That's the minority of the circumstances, and that's what we have to sort out, that's what we have to reach a balance in.

–Elder D. Todd Christofferson

The free exercise of religion is critical to Latter-day Saints, but they recognize exceptions for things like safety and public health, he said.

"There's great danger in thinking religious freedom is absolute and overrides everything about nondiscrimination," Elder Oaks said. "And there is great danger in thinking nondiscrimination in absolute and overrides religious freedom."

Some exceptions

The senior LDS leaders provided additional examples of religious freedoms they say should be protected in nondiscrimination legislation.

"I believe that there's some misunderstanding and even mischaracterization sometimes when we talk about exemptions for religious freedom," Elder Christofferson said. "We're not talking about denial of service and that sort of thing as a standard. There may be an exception here or there to protect conscience, but by and large that's not the issue.

"These two values — nondiscrimination and religious freedom — for the most part don't compete, but there are areas where they do run up against each other. That's the minority of the circumstances, and that's what we have to sort out, that's what we have to reach a balance in."

Elder Oaks restated the church's position that nondiscrimination laws and ordinances should protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, with some exceptions for religious conscience.

"We think there is a very real question about whether there should be an absolute nondiscrimination (provision) in housing that would not let a widow, say, who rents out a room in her home, make some individual choices on the basis of her conscience, so if you have nondiscrimination as a value that overrides everything else, that's not good."

He said such "gradations" will be difficult for lawmakers to draw.

"But I hope they will be drawn and you won't get an absolute 'no discrimination' law or (one that is) an absolute, 'religion is an excuse for everything.'"

Don't expect church leaders to comment on specific bills in coming months. That's impractical for leaders of a worldwide church, they said, though sometimes "very specific circumstances" will lead them to "oppose this or promote that."


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