How could it be anything other than groundbreaking news when leaders of a large and very conservative church support legislation to end discrimination against LGBT people?!
I never thought I'd live long enough to see headlines like this one from AP: "Mormon Leaders Call for Measures Protecting Gay Rights" and this one from the Salt Lake Tribune: "In Major Move, Mormon Apostles Call for Statewide LGBT Protections."
If we can win the support of a conservative faith like the Mormon Church, we must be nearing the end of our battle for full equality!
Sadly, the story behind the headlines is nothing to celebrate. In fact, yesterday's announcement from the church is part of a shrewd political strategy that's both alarming and dangerous.
The Mormon Church has been on a major campaign to rehabilitate its image after it was exposed as the driving force behind the passage of Prop. 8, the California ballot initiative that repealed the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in California. Their huge "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign attempted to show that the church is diverse ("even tattooed rock stars are Mormons!"), and they've softened their rhetoric regarding LGBT people. The church is even OK with domestic partnerships now.
So it's easy to think that the January 27 announcement from leaders of the Mormon Church is one more step in the right direction, even though the statement reiterates their opposition to our freedom to marry. The devil, as they say, lies in the details. The announcement went further than the headlines that reported it, saying that laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination must also "protect religious freedom." In essence, their position is that "it should be illegal to discriminate against LGBT people unless you believe they should be discriminated against."
Well, churches are already protected from having to hire clergy who don't practice their faith, just as they have the freedom to discriminate against women in their leadership. No one is attempting to infringe on the rights of the church and its members to lead and practice the faith in which they believe. But that's not enough for the LDS church and for religious conservative extremists around the country. They're working federally and in states across the nation to pass broad exemptions to non-discrimination laws that effectively gut civil rights protections under the guise of protecting religious freedoms. And right now in the Idaho statehouse, and elsewhere around the country, they're fighting new anti-discrimination bills by saying they infringe on religious freedoms.
You have to ask yourself, what are the religious freedoms that need to be protected? The freedom for a waiter to not serve a lesbian couple? The freedom for a hotelier to deny a room to a transgender man? The freedom for a teacher to refuse to teach LGBT kids?
And just where do these religious freedoms end? There are many different religions practiced in this country and each has unique beliefs. Should it be legal to fire a mom who divorces her husband? Should a Muslim man be free to turn away a woman who wants to rent a car from him?
It's important that no one be confused by the false contrast between freedom from discrimination and freedom of religion. The same arguments being made now by religious fundamentalists, about legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination violating their religious freedom, were made against laws to protect people from discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other factors. They didn't pass muster then and they don't now.
In our democracy, people of faith are just as free to practice their religion as they always have been, and to believe whatever they choose. They can even discriminate within the confines of their own homes. But personal beliefs should never be license to discriminate against people in the public sphere. We must remain vigilant and marshal our forces against insidious efforts to equate religious freedom with the right to harm other people.