The LDS Church's call on Saturday to foster "fairness for all" in the debate surrounding religious liberty and emerging LGBTQ rights appropriately diverges from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's recently released report privileging nondiscrimination over religious freedom.
The commission's report issued Wednesday falls short of its stated aim of “reconciling” the often competing rights of religious liberty and nondiscrimination. Perhaps even more troubling, however, was the commission chairman's statements that called into question the sincerity of religious freedom advocates and insinuated that religious freedom is often simply a cover for shameless bigotry.
Questioning the motives of believers and summarily picking winners and losers in this debate, are yet more signs of a growing secular dogma that places ideological purity above reason and reflection.
Compare this approach with the tone and substance of the messages delivered on Saturday by top leaders and lawyers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this paper.
While candidly acknowledging that some today do in fact rank nondiscrimination “above the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostle, urged individuals to “respect” the current laws of the land that still “provide unique protections for believers and religious institutions.”
Elder Oaks also discussed “fairness for all” as a proven path forward for our pluralistic society. Speaking at a regional religious freedom church meeting in Dallas for local Latter-day Saints, Elder Oaks used Utah as an example where groups from all sides of this issue came together to pass legislation that simultaneously advanced robust nondiscrimination ordinances as well as laws that protected the rights of religious institutions and believers.
This package of legislation is often referred to in media accounts as the “Utah Compromise.” But Elder Oaks rightly pushed back on that name because no one in the process was asked to compromise their values or convictions.
Juxtapose Utah’s collaborative spirit with the ill-advised rhetoric of the Chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Martin R. Castro:
“The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom,’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.”
Elder Oaks warns against name-calling, stating that it "chills free speech” and stunts sincere dialogue. Epithets too often intimidate and impose “punishments on the speech or positions of adversaries.”
Despite Mr. Castro's inferences to the contrary, people of faith generally do not use “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” as code for “discrimination” and “intolerance.” The Latter-day Saint tradition, for example, cherishes religious freedom as a civil right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. When that right is not properly valued or protected, Latter-day Saints are reminded of the bitter persecution and discrimination that once drove Mormons from their lands in the Midwest and, in some cases, into early graves along the western Plains.
To be clear, LGBTQ individuals absolutely deserve protections from discrimination, and all Americans should help advance this cause. Yet, as Utah has shown, LGBTQ protections need not come at the expense of religious freedom rights. The two can be championed together.
What we need is “fairness for all.”
On Saturday, the church also unveiled its new religious freedom webpage, religiousfreedom.lds.org, that contains practical approaches for defending religious liberty in respectful and non-combative ways. That was much of the focus during the remainder of the Church's meeting in Dallas at which the church's general counsel, Elder Lance B. Wickman, an emeritus general authority, and three other religious freedom experts spoke.
As one of the two dissenting voices to the Civil Rights Commission’s majority report pointed out, these issues are nuanced and there is simply no fairness in claiming "one set of concerns is ‘preeminent’ and the other set is not.”
All parties in this dialogue should steer away from easy answers that try to avoid the messy formula of finding true fairness for all. Although the Commission's majority report was undoubtedly intended to tackle a challenging issue, its conclusions that appear to predetermine a winner and a loser — irrespective of case-specific facts or related legal precedents — will undoubtedly be read in many circles as religious discrimination, albeit by another name.