There They Go Again: Mormon Paper Distorts Facts to Bash Marriage Equality

The last time I looked at Deseret News, they were touting a poll purporting to show that most Americans oppose marriage equality -- something in conflict with all other polls. An investigation showed that the poll used an unrepresentative sampling, skewed to disproportionately include those people most likely to take a negative position.

Deseret News is the voice of the Mormon Church, which owns it, and twice weekly the paper publishes inserts specifically on church matters. This relationship influences the reports it publishes.

A new article they published claims that marriage equality is a threat to religious liberty. The paper says there is a "growing conflict between same-sex marriage and the rights of people of faith -- a conflict that experts says is negatively affecting the rights of individuals and organizations to live their faith freely and without fear of punishment."

This claim deserves the response Ronald Reagan gave Jimmy Carter in the 1980 debate: "There you go again." The story misrepresents specific cases to make them about same-sex marriage, when they were about something different.

They wrote that one case turned a "Christian" into the "poster child" of the alleged conflict. This was about a photographer in New Mexico. The first clue that this wasn't because of marriage equality is that New Mexico grants no such rights. The law in question was about discrimination, not marriage. Desert News claims that "gay rights advocates brush off the case as an anomaly," but this isn't an anomaly related to marriage rights; it is just about an entirely different kind of law.

This photographer told a gay couple she would not photograph their commitment ceremony. They sued under anti-discrimination laws and won. That they were having a commitment ceremony was not why they won the lawsuit; it was because state law forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, just as it does on the basis of religion -- something I suspect Mormons find beneficial.

A good illustration would be two religious ceremonies unrelated to legal issues: first communion and a bar mitzvah. Imagine that a father calls a photographer and asks for photos of his son's bar mitzvah. The photographer says he is a Christian and finds Judaism to be sinful, immoral, whatever. He admits that he would photograph a first communion, just not a bar mitzvah. Under anti-discrimination laws he has problems. Does that mean allowing bar mitzvahs puts the religious freedom of Christians at risk?

As the law sees it, rightly or wrongly, the issue is not the nature of the ceremony but that a specific class of people is experiencing discrimination. With or without same-sex marriage, the discrimination issue remains. And it is anti-discrimination laws that they are really complaining about.

So why not say so? Perhaps because they embrace such laws. Religious groups tend to want protections from people who might discriminate against them. Neither do they wish to be seen as supporting discrimination against people on the basis of race -- at least not anymore.

The second case presented by Deseret News is equally bogus. A church-owned pavilion, in a state without marriage equality, was granted tax exemption on the basis that it was a public-use property. The owners then declined to allow a gay couple to rent the pavilion, in violation of the terms by which they obtained tax exemption. As a result they lost their exemption. What Deseret News leaves out is that the pavilion then sought tax exemption as a religious building, not a public-use building, and its exemption was reinstated.

Religious institutions have rights denied private citizens -- they have the right to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. A religiously owned radio station may refuse to hire atheists, but non-religious stations can't refuse to hire the religious.

The other cases this report used are also related to anti-discrimination laws, not marriage laws, with one exception. Catholic Charities acted on behalf of various state governments in placing foster children into homes. For this they were granted subsidies to cover costs. Some states said that if they want state funds, they couldn't discriminate against gay and lesbian taxpayers who provide those funds. Catholic Charities decided that it didn't want to be charitable unless it could do so with other people's money. Again, there was no marriage issue involved. It happened in Illinois, which doesn't allow same-sex marriage, and in Massachusetts, which does. Providing a state-funded service in a discriminatory way was the issue, not marriage. That just doesn't sound as convincing as pretending gay marriage threatens religious liberty.

No church has to perform same-sex weddings -- just as Catholic churches don't have to perform marriages for Mormons, and vice versa. That private businesses may run into problems with anti-discrimination laws is another matter. Those laws exist whether marriage equality is realized or not. If this is the issue, then these groups should openly say so, instead of pretending marriage rights are involved.

The hypocrisy is that religious-right groups tend to support anti-discrimination laws provided that they are protected. The idea that a gay-owned business might refuse to provide them services, or rent them an apartment, bothers them. They want anti-discrimination laws that are one-way streets, where they are free to indulge their prejudices but others are not.

Dragging unrelated issues into the marriage equality debate seems par for the course. When you don't have legitimate threats with which to scare people, you either have to invent entirely bogus ones or drag in the unrelated. Opponents of marriage equality have done both. H.L. Mencken wasn't far off when he said, "The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary." Certainly this would be another example for Mr. Mencken, were he still alive.