What’s Behind a Conservative Mormon’s Call For “Religious Freedom” Advocates to “Stand Down” on LGBT Rights

It’s not every day that a self-proclaimed conservative who spent more than a decade leading a right-wing think tank calls on his fellow people of faith to “stand down” on religious opposition to LGBT rights. But that’s exactly what Paul Mero, former executive director of the Sutherland Institute, did this month in an op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune.

It is time for those of us who cherish religious freedom to stop, yes stop, opposing gender equality… This is no trade-off, no compromise nor quid pro quo. Neither is it unilateral surrender. It is neutrality and it is wisdom.

Mero may not be a household name like Pat Robertson or Tony Perkins, but he has spent the past 30 years filling his resume with deep connections to the anti-LGBT, right-wing factions of American government and policy-making. Prior to his tenure at the decidedly conservative Sutherland Institute, Mero spent a decade on Capitol Hill, working for former members of congress known for their outspoken opposition to homosexuality.

After getting “burned out” on beltway politics, Mero eventually made his way to the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois, where he was invited to help lead a then-nascent gathering of faith-based anti-LGBT “pro-family” groups—which would eventually become the World Congress of Families (WCF). For the uninitiated, the WCF is, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an annual gathering that “pursues an international anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ agenda, seeking to promote conservative ideologies—and codify these in regressive laws and policies—that dictate who has rights as ‘family,’ and who doesn’t.”

Mero is also an active member (and adult convert) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and has himself followed Church guidance to organize against LGBT equality—most directly against marriage equality and nondiscrimination protections. During Utah’s battle over marriage equality, for example, Mero offered to pay the state’s legal fees for defending its ban on same-sex marriage, as long as he and Sutherland were able to select the attorney and strategy used in the (ultimately unsuccessful) challenge. Mero’s prior publications include an article called “The Myth of Sexual Orientation,” and a book, co-authored with WCF founder Allan Carlson, called The Natural Family: A Manifesto.

So how did a straight, married father of six, who’s spent most of his 30-year career professionally opposing LGBT equality, emerge as one of the few religiously adherent voices calling not only for mere tolerance of LGBT rights, but also for passive acceptance of legal equality? And, more crucially, what are the limits of this newly articulated tolerance?

“Holy cow… we can’t repeal the fall of man”

As it turns out, Mero’s call for religion to get out of public politics extends to his own hesitance to prescribe specific policy solutions to the current stalemate between “religious freedom” and LGBT rights. During a two-hour conversation with RD, Mero repeatedly sidestepped requests to clearly identify the dividing line between these two camps, suggesting that state and local governments should navigate these issues independently, ideally without the interference of faith-based groups.

“I would call on my leaders to consider getting out of public policy,” Mero says. “They can still speak out on moral issues over the pulpit, and they should. And I would highly encourage them to do it more. But to not mingle the sword and shield, if you will.”

Mero contends that he has actually been urging fellow conservatives to back off public opposition to LGBT rights for nearly 20 years (despite his participation in anti-LGBT campaigns through Sutherland, WCF, and the LDS Church). He sees religious freedom as “the last line in the sand” for faithful Americans who worry about government overreach.

“If they really want to defend religious freedom, then they actually have to get out of public policy,” Mero says of faith-based groups and religious institutions going forward. When it comes to his own faith tradition, Mero acknowledges that he is “just a lowly, un-listened-to member,” but says he and other Mormon colleagues have been quietly “floating” the idea of backing off religious opposition to LGBT rights—specifically nondiscrimination ordinances and public accommodation protections for transgender people.

“The only way that [trans restroom access] relates to religious freedom is if the laws are saying that churches, religions have to have transgender bathrooms,” Mero says. “Then it does. But other than that, it doesn’t [impact religious freedom]. So just stand down.”

When asked, Mero does admit that none of the laws or legislation he’s seen relating to equal access for trans people have mandated that churches or religious groups alter the facilities available in their buildings. Indeed, the trans-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance passed in Utah (with the endorsement of the LDS Church) contains a broad religious exemption, which Mero believes is “proper,” even as he questions the wisdom of the legal strategy that produced the “Utah Compromise.”

Nevertheless, Mero is critical of the since-rescinded Obama Administration guidance relating to equal access for trans students, and suggests that “these issues” should be decided on a local level, by the individuals directly involved. He offers a hypothetical where one school in a district might decide to adopt trans-inclusive policies, while another rejects those same policies. He acknowledges that “it sucks” for trans students attending the non-affirming school.

“But, holy cow, as a religious guy, I understand too that we can’t repeal the fall of man,” he continues. “You can’t just get rid of every bad thing that exists and still have a free society, a democratic society.”

Parsing out Mero’s particular stance when it comes to LGBT identity and religious freedom requires an understanding of the dual frameworks from which he approaches the two issues. When it comes to LGBT identity, Mero insists that he has seen “no replicable scientific or medical evidence” to suggest that sexual orientation and gender identity are innate. As such, he heartily rejects equating these identity components with characteristics protected in federal law, like race.

“I’ve never been a ‘born that way’ guy, and I’ve never been ‘it’s a civil rights issue’ guy,” says Mero of his response to the modern framing of LGBT rights. “Our sexuality is: we are either male or female, and we have moral agency. And if there are issues at birth, like physiological issues that cause… [an] anomaly—if those things happen, they happen, but it doesn’t change the norm, if you will.”

Arguing that his view has been confirmed by his Mormon faith, modern science, and his own research—including a controversial 2016 study that claimed to debunk the “born this way” hypothesis—Mero rejects the self-determined identity of trans women, specifically. While he acknowledges that these women believe their identity to be female, he continues to use male pronouns to refer to them, and asserts that he does not “believe” their identity “in a scientific or medical sense.”

(For the record, the study to which Mero points, authored by Johns Hopkins professor Paul McHugh, is an outlier in contemporary research about the biological origins of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s true that there is no universal scientific consensus about the existence of a “gay gene,” but leading research has found that the brain scans of trans women most closely resemble those of cisgender (non-trans) women, and trans men’s brain scans mimic cis men’s brains, suggesting that there is, in fact, a biological component to gender identity that goes deeper than any “sincerely held belief.”)

When asked if he has ever spoken directly with an out transgender person, Mero pauses, then explains that he has not engaged with an openly trans person in his three decades of work advising and collaborating with policymakers, activists, and attorneys. He adds that he does not consider another person’s gender to be his “beeswax,” and admits that such a conversation would likely be “uncomfortable for me to have… just as a human being to another human being.”

To be martyred, if necessary

In the course of our conversation, Mero frequently returns to his faith, which instructs him to view the world through a “moral ecology,” a critical part of maintaining “freedom” broadly, which comports with what Mero and his contemporaries call “natural law,” loosely defined as a universal and unchanging code determined by God.

“My conception of freedom is a moral ecology of things,” Mero says. “It’s not just liberty to do what you want to do as long as you don’t hurt somebody else… I believe freedom requires virtue. We have to be our better selves. And if we are not our better selves, then we are going to lose the free society.”

But what does being one’s better self look like on an individual level? And to what extent should a pluralistic society define “virtue” in accordance with dominant faith traditions?

“I have said before that homosexuality is not being our better selves,” Mero says. “But that is from my religious, faith-based framework. And I would say that about somebody that is an adulterer, or somebody who has sex outside of wedlock. Right? I would argue that on a faith basis.”

That “faith basis” provides the final, crucial key to understanding Mero’s perception of LGBT rights and “religious freedom.” As a Mormon, Mero is predisposed to view religious freedom as a shield to defend the outsider, because that foundational principle has proved crucial to his church’s survival.

To hear Mero tell it, modern religious freedom issues can be broken down into three concentric rings: the outermost ring is occupied by the institutional church, and concerns itself with what religious freedom means to a given religion. The next ring “might be the corporate businesses or educational institutions that are owned by a religion, but interface more broadly with the public who are not members of the faith,” Mero explains. And the final, innermost ring, which provides the core foundation for Mero’s understanding of “religious freedom,” includes matters of individual conscience.

The two inner rings, Mero adds, are where most modern conflicts between LGBT rights and “religious freedom” occur. “I can understand why a religion would engage in lawsuits over the cake baker [who refused to serve a same-sex wedding],” Mero offers. That’s a matter of individual conscience, he says, parroting an oft-used defense for religious-based refusals of service. He frames the issue as one of competing values, suggesting that any resolution would require compromise on both sides, ideally through community conversation rather than litigation.

“There has to be adults in the room that come together and work through this,” he argues. “The wisest LGBT people around should get together with the wisest of the religious freedom folks, and sit down and try to figure this one out so that there is not so much contention.”

“Why should people who are trying to live a Christ-like life buy into all the contention?” he asks, adding that the Mormon tradition considers contention “the enemy.” That contentiousness, Mero argues, has been fueled in large part by the LGBT community’s broad insistence that “everything about their lives is a civil right—in the same way that the color of skin is a civil right.”

Mero, of course, rejects that characterization, and believes that as long as LGBT folks continue insisting on their civil rights, the chasm between religious groups and those seeking equal protection under the law will continue to widen. If the LGBT community insists, “for lack of a better term…[that] being gay is like being black, then all discussions will break down,” Mero predicts. “And there won’t be any compromises—at least lasting ones.” (Mero doesn’t offer a framework for LGBT advocacy that might be better received by religious adherents and organizations.)

Here is where Mero’s calculated call for religions to “stand down” on LGBT issues is laid bare. He believes that doing so will allow conservative faith-based groups and individuals to take the moral high ground—to be martyred, if necessary. He frames this strategy as a “Hippocratic Oath” of faith-based advocacy, calling on the faithful to “do no harm” in the public sphere. Doing so is following the example of Christ, he says.

“In other words, leave the opponents without excuse,” he suggests. “If they are going to be aggressive, it’s on them. It’s not on us. … And if we get persecuted, so be it. If we lose, so be it.”

When asked if he believes religious freedom and LGBT rights are inherently at odds, Mero flips the script: “I would say that the LGBT focus on civil rights is at odds with religious freedom.”

And despite his talk of good-faith efforts on both sides, Mero concedes that he doesn’t actually believe a compromise is imminent. Barring a seismic shift in the way LGBT people talk about their own full participation in society, or an unprecedented retreat by the self-proclaimed prophets of “religious freedom,” foot soldiers on all sides are in for a long, deeply entrenched battle.