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Our thoughts on LDS statements on religious liberties, anti-discrimination laws

The Salt Lake Temple at left with the crowd leaving the Conference center after the General Conference Saturday afternoon Session.
The Salt Lake Temple at left with the crowd leaving the Conference center after the General Conference Saturday afternoon Session.
Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Two unrelated events — one expected and one a surprise — dominated Utah politics last week. Our thoughts about the LDS Church press conference and the governor’s State of the State speech:

It’s not often that three apostles and a top auxiliary leader from the LDS Church hold a formal press conference. Did the substance match the drama?

Pignanelli: "Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is." — Mahatma Gandhi As a Roman Catholic, I am accustomed to religious organizations moving at a glacial pace in acknowledging changes to human thoughts and societal norms. Pope John Paul II delivered a tepid apology for the 1633 imprisonment of Galileo by the Inquisition, along with the recognition that the earth does involve around the sun…in 1992. Therefore, the statement by LDS officials calling upon government leaders to pass legislation to protect religious freedoms and rights of LGBT citizens in housing, employment and public accommodations, was a breathtaking development. The Church chose to confront the reality of people suffering because of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs. So for me-and others inhabiting the political world-this was a very big deal.

There are naysayers. Some Evangelical groups (who say stupid things about Mormons anyway) are grousing about the statement. Several left-wing organizations are critical. But the larger well-respected human rights organizations are impressed with the content and tone. The trajectory and discussion of these issues has forever changed-in a positive direction. Members and nonmembers are grateful for the courage and leadership of the LDS church.

Webb: This was a big deal, and an important step in healing some pretty deep wounds. The guidance by church leaders didn’t completely resolve the inherent conflict between gay rights and religious freedom, but if advocates on both sides listened carefully, meaningful principles were outlined. An important component was the church’s clarion call for tolerance, dignity, respectful dialogue, and balance.

As always, such harmony will be difficult to achieve. While the church supports an anti-discrimination statute prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and public services, it also emphasized that religious freedom must be carefully protected. The Salt Lake City anti-discrimination ordinance seems to strike the right balance.

Difficult cases will always occur. Let’s say the owners of the True Believers Apartment Complex are devout Christians who fervently believe same-sex cohabitation is sinful and violates their religious principles. They politely decline to rent apartments to same-sex couples, and point out other nearby apartments the couples could rent. So should this small business and others like it receive exemptions from an anti-discrimination statute? This is where absolutism will have to be rejected, and statesmanship and compromise will be needed to effect good public policy.

So the statements by the church leaders did not entirely resolve inevitable conflicts. But by asking for balance and “fairness for all,” they suggested a nuanced approach supporting anti-discrimination laws, with perhaps exceptions in certain circumstances.

Does the church announcement ensure smooth passage of an anti-discrimination statute in the Legislature? How will the special interest groups on both sides of the issue respond?

Pignanelli: The legal dynamics of the controversy started when florists, photographers and bakers refused to provide their services to a same-sex couple for religious reasons. Initially, many Americans concur that such a faith-based objection is legitimate. But substitute "Jewish" or "mixed race" for same-sex, and the discussion dramatically changes because few support such bigotry.

Such is the rub for the Legislature.

Fashioning a prohibition against discrimination while protecting religious liberties is a legal minefield. But the church spokespersons provided guidance that policymakers should seek an understanding that rights on all sides are not absolute but can be subject to regulatory safeguards. This is consistent with their support of the Salt Lake City anti-discrimination ordinance.

The potential of crafting a bill acceptable to most lawmakers (sponsored by the respected Sen. Stephen Urquhart), which contains the important exceptions and carveouts, is now enhanced with the details provided in this important announcement.

Webb: To win legislative approval, an anti-discrimination statute will have to be accompanied by a strong statute protecting religious freedom. Finding the right balance will be difficult and some groups will be unhappy. It will test the church leaders’ call for tolerance and balance.

Each year the governor brags about Utah’s performance and lays out his priorities. How did Gov. Herbert perform, and were legislators paying attention?

Pignanelli: The well-delivered speech reflected the Governor's administration-compact and efficient. He covered much territory in less than 30 minutes. Yeah, he boasted a lot about the state, but bragging rights are undeniable. Particularly noteworthy is the repeated shout outs the governor gave to several legislators- an unusual, but smart strategy. This is a signal he is paying attention to the Legislative Branch and seeks their acceptance of his vision.

Webb: The governor gave a nice, forward-looking speech, asking lawmakers to invest in the future. I’m actually somewhat optimistic about this session. It seems the governor and top legislative leaders really do want to tackle the state’s tough problems with an eye toward long-term prosperity. I expect them to be far more productive than the national Congress.

If they make a substantial investment in education leading toward a top 10 ranking in education performance, shore up transportation funding, deal wisely with Medicaid expansion, and make progress with air quality, they will have had a stellar session – investing in the next generation, not just taking care of today.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.