SALT LAKE CITY — LDS Church leaders decided last week to step directly into the middle of a polarized debate with a plea for just that — a middle ground.
Voices from opposite ends of the spectrum in the conversation on gay rights and religious freedoms unsurprisingly said the stance taken by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't go far enough toward their own positions.
But others said the church's call Tuesday for balancing gay and religious rights was noteworthy, timely and an "olive branch" that could help both sides and promote practical dialogue in statehouses across the nation as pressure builds for state legislatures to address laws that protect gays from discrimination on one hand and provide safeguards for people of faith to exercise their religious beliefs.
"I think moderate-to-conservative lawmakers around the country are experimenting with a variety of approaches to protect religious freedom in a whole bunch of areas but including this one," said Tim Schultz, a public policy expert who has worked to build bipartisan religious freedom caucuses in more than 20 state legislatures.
"We've already seen in Michigan a very prominent leader attempt this kind of a balance. I suspect that others will do it, too."
LGBT people have lacked a negotiating partner on the religious right but now may have one who can help avoid a zero-sum game, said gay rights advocate Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"This is the first major, right-of-center religious organization in the United States to break with the culture-war strategy and to do so publicly."
On Thursday, Mormon leaders told the Deseret News that strong reactions to their position proved their point that churches should not seek an all-or-nothing approach that considers religious rights to be absolute and LGBT groups should avoid an uncompromising pursuit of absolutes in gay rights that infringe on religious liberty.
Some gay rights advocacy groups, emboldened by court decisions that have legalized gay marriage in 36 states — nearly three times the number 18 months ago — believe they have momentum and that widespread public support for nondiscrimination laws means they should be uncompromising.
But before the court decisions that opened the way for gay marriage, it didn't enjoy the same momentum in state legislatures. Barring another round of court decisions, nondiscrimination bills still face the same steep climb in statehouses.
In fact, gays felt stung by what Rauch said appeared to them to be a "take-all-the-marbles" mentality demonstrated by some religious conservatives. He cited recent attempts in the Kansas, Arizona and Mississippi legislatures to pass laws that would have exempted religious objectors from obeying anti-discrimination laws.
The law passed in Mississippi.
Those efforts stem from concerns some evangelicals have that gays want to completely do away with the idea of religious conscience and religious exemptions. They have said that ceding any ground could lead to broad infringement on the practice of religious liberty.
"What we are now witnessing is a radical acceleration of the movement to redefine religious liberty so that (it) means almost nothing," Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said after the LDS Church's news conference.
That intense debate was gathering steam when the church announced it supports nondiscrimination laws protecting gays from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation like hotels, restaurants and other businesses — if those laws safeguard religious liberties.
Rauch wrote for the New York Daily News that the announcement was "a game-changer" and "a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: 'If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.'"
Gay rights leaders should seize that "olive branch," he added.
Rauch's belief is that a political solution is better for all.
"The church is explicitly offering and endorsing the expansion of civil rights protections for gay people," he told the Deseret News. "It's opening up a dialogue saying the price for that is going to be religious liberty protections, but we want to have a conversation about how that works and we think we can come up with 'positive-sum solution.'
"So, this looks to me like a real effort to break with the culture-war politics that have surrounded this issue and replace them with positive-sum politics where both sides walk away with more than they had when they started."
He said he has argued with his gay friends that either side is kidding itself if it thinks it will walk away with all the marbles in the nondiscrimination debate.
"There's no doubt there are a lot of people on the gay side and the progressive side who don't really think religious freedom protections are a good idea, or think that they're the exception that will follow the rule. For a variety of reasons, I think they're wrong.
"I think they're kidding themselves about the fundamental nature of the First Amendment and the special role of religion in American society. And I think that gay rights will be more firmly and affirmatively grounded in a society that allows some exceptions, that takes a more flexible approach and therefore seems less threatening to people who disagree with it."
Of course, defining the details of the religious exceptions will be the hard work.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday on a series of back-channel talks in private homes between mid-level LDS Church officials and Utah LGBT leaders that contributed to the church's decision to support a Salt Lake City nondiscrimation ordinance in 2009.
"The good news," Rauch said, "is that many jurisdictions all over the country, including in Salt Lake City, have done exactly that with quite actually a large amount of success," Rauch said. "There's no one-size-fits-all solution. It's not going to look the same in Houston as it does in Boston; it doesn't need to. The point is both sides can walk away with something."
The Catholic publication Crux said the LDS announcement left Catholics and Southern Baptists alone in opposition to work and housing protections for gays and lesbians.
But Crux also offered a brief defense of Mormons against the harshest gay critics who said LDS leaders want a license to discriminate: "A less cynical view is that Mormons are joining many mainstream Protestant denominations in recognizing the need for anti-bias laws — even if they themselves aren’t on board with gay marriage."
Two prominent Southern Baptist leaders criticized the LDS position, too — Mohler and Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who called it "naive." But both Mohler and Moore have met repeatedly with LDS leaders — Mohler has spoken twice at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, once saying that evangelicals and Mormons might go to jail together defending religious freedom — and said they will continue to do so.
"That was a pretty gentle dissent," said Schultz, who works with Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics and other faith leaders at the 1st Amendment Partnership, an umbrella group for faith communities to work together on religious freedom issues. "There is mutual respect. You're seeing the leading Southern Baptist figure in the country, or at least one of them, have remarkably warm relationship with the LDS Church on religious freedom. I'm not sure that was true 20 years ago."
In fact, Schultz said reliable sources tell him that the level of agreement and goodwill among faith groups today is much higher than it was in the early 1990s during the efforts to pass the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
"There's a high degree of good will and mutual respect in working together among the faith communities and I think this will aid, not hinder, that," he added.
In another example, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, visited last week with LDS leaders in Salt Lake City and spoke at BYU, which he said his predecessors would have thought astonishing 30 years ago. Of Mormons and Catholics, "We have reached a point of friendliness, I think we've kind of been forced to it by circumstances. If we don't hang together, we'll hang alone, individually."
Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, both of whom were part of Tuesday's news conference, told the Deseret News on Thursday that LDS Church leaders cherish their relationships with Mohler, Moore and Chaput as well as Jewish, Muslim and other faith leaders and will continue to work with them to defend religious freedom.
"We cheer what they do, not everything they do but some things they do, "Elder Oaks said. "They cheer what we do, not everything we do but some things we do. There's a wonderful term used by a judge once in writing an anti-justice opinion. He spoke of conscious parallelism. It's not an agreement to do something, it's being consciously parallel. We have a conscious parallelism with the Catholic Church, and with some groups of evangelicals, and so on."
"They have been very gratifying associations," said Elder Christofferson, who has met with Mohler, Moore and others personally. "A number of black Protestant churches, and the Seventh-day Adventists, the Assemblies of God, the Catholic Church, and it goes on and on. We treasure those, because we've benefited from those associations just on a personal level, the good people we get to rub shoulders with, and we hope we contribute.
"We don't all see the world the same way, but we do have a shared interest in the free exercise of religion. We know that we can't accomplish our mission fully unless that's the case here and everywhere else. So our interest is in the U.S. but it's also in promoting that kind of thing everywhere in the world."
Schultz, who has worked with 31 state legislatures on religious freedom issues, said the LDS Church's proposal has been talked about in private a lot by both faith leaders and state legislators around the country.
"I think that probably now, as a result of this announcement, this is a conversation that will take place more and more in public and will probably draw in more legislators as well, and I think that is a good thing," he said. "I think somebody coming forward with a solution that looks like it could be a win-win aids the conversation. Making it public makes the national conversation accelerate, and I think that's a useful thing."
No state has passed a nondiscrimination law in several years.
"I think this is what the LDS Church is aiming at," Schultz said. "You're starting to see center-right legislators supporting this kind of compromise."
Many eyes will be on Michigan, where in November the state speaker of the house, a conservative Republican, proposed a pair of bills he said "could strike a balance between protecting personal liberties and defending religious freedom."
Schultz expects other legislators around the country to make similar attempts, some spurred by the LDS announcement, especially in states of and west of the Rocky Mountain area.
Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on a marriage case in June that Schultz said will have "tremendous gravitational pull" and shape what happens going forward.
The church's position also didn't surprise any of the faith communities, nor Schultz, something Moore mentioned in his dissent.
Elder Oaks said LDS Church leaders will be disappointed if their proposal doesn't make a difference.
It may or may not change many minds among LDS legislators around the country, but it will does help church members who support nondiscrimination. The majority of Americans do, and Mormons are more likely to if told beforehand about a specific statement of support from church leaders, according to a 2012 survey for the new book “Seeking the Promised Land: Mormons and American Politics.”
“What this does is it empowers a whole litany of LDS members,” Arizona state Rep. Ed Ableser, a Democrat, told the Washington Post. “When I propose policy, it gives me a little bit more strength, a little bit more courage, a little bit more backing."