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Mormon Church seeks 'balance' between gay rights and religious freedom

Top leaders of the Mormon Church announced on Tuesday that they supported the passage of statewide nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian Utahns.
In this Sept. 3, 2014, file photo, shows flowers blooming in front of the Salt Lake Temple. in Temple Square, in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)
In this Sept. 3, 2014, file photo, shows flowers blooming in front of the Salt Lake Temple. in Temple Square, in Salt Lake City.

Attempting to appease both sides in an intensifying conflict between LGBT advocates and the religious right, top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Tuesday that they supported both the passage of statewide nondiscrimination protections for gay and lesbian Utahns, and the religious freedom of those who oppose homosexuality.

“We call on local, state, and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individual families, churches, and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment, and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, and transportation -- protections which are not available in many parts of the country,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in a news release. Mormon officials, he continued, “believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance.”

The support of statewide LGBT protections marked a major departure for the Mormon Church, which opposes marriage equality and played an instrumental role in helping to pass Proposition 8 -- California’s former ban on same-sex nuptials. But the endorsement was undercut by the church’s joint call to protect religious freedom -- an argument critics view as a license to discriminate against LGBT citizens.

The religious freedom and LGBT equality movements most famously butted heads last year, when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer buckled under widespread calls to veto a measure that would have made it easier for businesses to turn away LGBT people on religious grounds. That move effectively stopped similar legislation pending in more than a dozen states dead in its tracks. But several Republican lawmakers across the country kicked off the 2015 legislative session with new religious freedom measures.

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One of those lawmakers is Utah Rep. Jacob Anderegg, who’s sponsoring legislation that would allow clergy, government officials, and judges to refuse to marry same-sex couples if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Despite the Mormon Church’s supportive words about religious freedom Tuesday, Anderegg told the Salt Lake Tribune he was not banking on the church’s endorsement.

LGBT equality advocates, however, were feeling much more confident about legislation they’re backing to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Nearly 20 Utah cities and counties have passed equal rights ordinances, but no nondiscrimination protections exist statewide.

“We laud the LDS Church’s statement of support,” said Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams in a statement. “The Church joins a growing number of faith, civic and corporate leaders who also stand on the side of compassion and fairness.”

The church’s statement could also have implications for 2016, should Mitt Romney decide to seek the Republican nomination again. A Mormon, Romney opposes marriage equality. But like many Republican hopefuls, he probably doesn’t want to talk about it as a growing number of states allow gay and lesbian couples to legally wed, and -- more importantly -- a growing number of voters support the change.

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With socially conservative contenders like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal calling for a federal constitutional amendment that would allow states to ignore court rulings in favor of marriage equality, the issue looks likely to come up during the next election, much to moderate GOPers’ chagrin. The Mormon Church’s announcement Tuesday may end up being one more factor that backs Romney into a another “severely conservative” corner.