Mormon Leader: Religious Freedom Under Attack by Gay Rights

Last Friday, LDS Apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks delivered another in a series of speeches designed to make the case that the LGBT civil rights movement constitutes an attack on freedom of religion, this time at Chapman University Law School in Orange County, California.

After comparing Proposition 8 supporters to black civil rights activists last year in a speech at BYU-Idaho and decrying deteriorating regard for religion in the public sphere in a speech at the Salt Lake Tabernacle last July, Oaks, a former clerk for US Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, argued that moral relativism and the declining influence of religion in American life are hastening the legal penalization of religious viewpoints on matters of public policy.

One LDS RD reader wrote to observe that just the day before Oaks’ speech, on February 3, a gay-rights activist invited by students to visit BYU had his tires slashed while parked in the lot of BYU’s Law School. A painful juxtaposition, especially inasmuch as the tire-slashing incident has made the news in Salt Lake City, but has not yet been acknowledged by the campus newspaper or University officials.

Another LDS RD reader made the equally provocative observation that 18 years ago Oaks himself sounded a very different tune on the role of religion in public life, writing in the LDS Church publication The Ensign:

If churches or church leaders choose to oppose or favor a particular piece of legislation, their opinions should be received on the same basis as the opinions offered by other knowledgeable organizations or persons, and they should be considered on their merits. By the same token, churches and church leaders should expect the same broad latitude of discussion of their views that conventionally applies to everyone else’s participation in public policy debates. A church can claim access to higher authority on moral questions, but its opinions on the application of those moral questions to specific legislation will inevitably be challenged by and measured against secular-based legislative or political judgments.

As for me, Oaks’s address generated many questions. What are the evidences that religious freedom is under legal attack in the United States? He cited a few cases (some of the same ones used in scare-tactic ads from the now-discredited National Organization for Marriage) but none of them pertains to the rights of churches or private individuals (acting as private individuals) to create and maintain their own religious beliefs and practices.

I’ve heard volumes of anecdotal evidence from LDS people who’ve been shunned by neighbors and coworkers, disadvantaged for promotions, and targeted for vandalism and derogatory speech. (One reader recently related that a co-worker told him that he considered him an “enemy” simply for being Mormon.) But is this an attack on religious freedom, continuing blowback from the Proposition 8 campaign, or simply the price of being a minority (racial, sexual, or religious) in America?

Had Mormons not invested ourselves so expensively in a less-than-forthright campaign to reshape public laws to match our own theology, would we be experiencing public shaming? And does longstanding public animus towards Mormons cross the threshold into systematic discrimination? Only if you’re running for president; aside from the fact that some of our co-workers are mean to us, most of the rest of us seem to be doing just fine.

In his address, Oaks clarified that the major threat to religious freedom was actually “moral relativism.” But where some see the decadence of “moral relativism,” I see the advancement of religious pluralism and the erosion of a conservative religious prerogative to define public life. For 50 years Mormons have “passed” as regular Americans and harnessed the power of popular social and religous conservatism to advance political agendas (such as the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and the passage of Proposition 8 and other anti-marriage-equality laws) in the service of the most conservative version of LDS theology. On political-religious matters, we have partnered almost exclusively with “natural allies” like conservative evangelicals, Catholics, and conservative Jews. (Indeed, in his address, Oaks mobilized several rhetorical tropes that appealed exclusively to conservatives, including the idea of a “conspiracy” to scrub out references to God in US history and the ugly canard that President Obama attempted to undermine freedom of religion by using the phrase “freedom of worship.”)

But if the battle to protect religious freedom is a real as Oaks argues, Latter-day Saints may need to rethink our decades-old strategy of relying on popular conservatism as a cover for our own unique theological interests. Now as it appears inevitable that the balance of public opinion is turning or will soon turn in favor of civil marriage equality for LGBT people, Mormons stand to lose the political prerogatives that we’ve enjoyed as a benefit of popular political conservatism. We are facing the stark prospect of once again returning to the marginal position we occupied in the late 19th century during the period of open Mormon polygamy: as a religious minority with views on marriage that reflect our own theology but diverge significantly from civic norms. Gone will be the pride we once took in our power to direct public opinion to meet our own private goals.

Indeed, many Mormons fear that broad acceptance of LGBT people will put us in the position we found ourselves in during the 1970s when Mormon institutions like BYU became the object of public boycotts and shaming. But whereas careful examination has shown that the Black priesthood ban was based in Mormon custom rather than in scripture, the prohibition of homosexual love and marriage in Mormonism is rooted in doctrines at the core of the faith: namely, the idea that marriages on earth mirror the shape of God as a male-female couple.

Orthodox LDS people who, following LDS Church leaders, continue to hold that homosexual love and marriage are immoral, will probably have to get used to being a minority once again. It may be that (as is the case with the rights of women in religion), once the foundations of civic equality are established, no one (except members) will really care what rules churches set and apply to their own memberships. Or perhaps institutions that steadfastly reject any moral standards that make room for homosexuality will come in for increased public shaming.

In either case, it will be easier for LDS conservatives to protect their religious freedom as a minority if they acknowledge that Mormons live as a minority not in a depravedly morally relativistic society (as Oaks argued) but in a democracy defined by legitimate moral and religious pluralism. We share citizenship with millions upon millions of religious people for whom LGBT equality is an article of faith. Recognizing them as neighbors deserving of equal protection for their religious beliefs should be fundamental to any discussion of gay rights and religious freedom in America.