Latter-day Saint leaders and LGBTQ advocates deepen their relationship on Washington D.C. Temple tour
Learn why the Church of Jesus Christ invited a broad coalition of people working together for LGBTQ rights and religious liberty to visit the renovated temple
KENSINGTON, Md. — Latter-day Saints sat peacefully with dozens of LGBTQ advocates in the Celestial Room of the Washington D.C. Temple last week during a special private tour of the church’s holiest space, which normally is closed to the public.
Perfect quiet is normal etiquette for a Celestial Room, but the LGBTQ leaders from across the country said the moments they shared in the temple with their friends from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strengthened relationships that are actively working to beef up both gay rights and religious rights across the United States.
“We truly can have LGBTQ liberty and religious liberty together. These are not oppositional viewpoints,” said Angela Hughey, president of One Community, a coalition seeking equal treatment for LGBTQ Arizonans.
Latter-day Saint leaders in Arizona and multiple other states are part of a broad coalition of religious, government, business and LGBTQ groups working together to pass new legislation in statehouses and Congress.
After last week’s joint temple tour, the group sat down for lunch in the temple visitors’ center and listened to each other. Listening and understanding are keys to the coalition, Hughey said.
“What keeps us in conflict is that we don’t understand one another, so when we meet each other in places of safety and equality, and we’re able to come together and learn about each other’s history and culture, it brings us together and creates a common bond of humanity,” she said.
Two months ago, the coalition introduced a bill that would both strengthen religious liberty in the state while offering important new housing, employment and public accommodations protections for LGBTQ people.
A day before the joint temple tour, the coalition published an open letter asking people to support similar future legislation in Georgia. The signatories included rabbis and leaders from Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Muslim and evangelical congregations, as well as a Latter-day Saint Area Seventy.
The Arizona bill contains religious liberty protections similar to Utah’s 2015 Fairness for All law that passed with the support of Latter-day Saint senior leadership. The Deseret News editorial board recently described that as an “eye-popping” example of different interests working together to hammer out difficult compromises.
Utah’s law banned discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing and employment. The Arizona proposal would ban discrimination in public accommodations — some restaurants in the state turn away would-be gay and transgender customers, for example.
It also would ban conversion therapy.
Utah banned conversion therapy in 2020 with the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opposes conversion therapy, and our therapists do not practice it,” Marty Stephens, the faith’s director of government and community relations, said while the ban was under debate.
Equality Arizona executive director Michael Soto said what he and Hughey are calling the equality and fairness coalition plans to introduce similar legislation in nine other states over the next year. It plans to use that model in Congress, too, which so far is considering both the Equality Act and the Fairness for All Act.
Coalition members also are shepherding city ordinances modeled after the same legislation. Last year, 16 North Carolina cities adopted municipal ordinances that NBC News called “historic LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws.”
One of the leaders behind that effort joined the tour of the Latter-day Saint temple, Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality North Carolina.
“This partnership to me makes it clear that we can have differences of opinion,” Johnson said. “I’m not seeking, as a person who’s LGBTQ or a person who’s working in this area for our rights, to change church doctrine, but we can work together for basic human rights, to ensure fairness for all.”
She said Latter-day Saint support for the coalition shows religious people that there is a way forward where people don’t have to choose between religious liberty or LGBTQ rights.
“I think that the church has taken a position that is extremely helpful,” she said. “There is another way for us to approach this where people can be treated with basic human dignity and have all the goods and services that we should have as people who are part of this country, without forcing the church to become something that the church is not comfortable being.”
The tour of the temple appeared to buttress the coalition’s efforts to work together. “We met together in this place of true shared humanity, with the core values of LGBTQ liberty and religious liberty walking together,” Hughey said.
The Washington D.C. Temple has been closed to the general public for 48 years. The Church of Jesus Christ recently completed a renovation and is hosting a scheduled six-week open house that begins Thursday.
Over the previous two weeks, apostles and other church leaders and representatives have provided private tours to invited guests.
The tour and subsequent meeting were special for Equality Arizona’s Soto, who grew up as a Latter-day Saint.
“We have built such a wonderful relationship with everyone in this coalition that it’s like seeing family when we get to be in the same room with each other,” he said.
Soto’s friendship and leadership, and the entire coalition, are important to James and Monica Phillips, Latter-day Saint parents of two LGBTQ children in Mesa, Arizona. They were part of the temple tour.
“Michael’s a great collaborator in that he brings people across lines,” James Phillips said. “There’s not many forums where we can sit with people from both sides and talk about solutions in the middle that will actually effect change, where we can see lasting changes that affect all those things that are most precious to us. So it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up, not only as parents but as passionate advocates in the space.”
Monica Phillips said her family is central, so her focus is on loving her children and trusting God.
“This was a dream come true being in this room with my LGBTQ friends and my church,” she said after the tour and lunch.
The church and its senior leaders have publicly supported nondiscrimination laws that protect LGBTQ rights and religious liberty since officially backing a Salt Lake City ordinance in 2009. At the time, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles indicated that ordinance could become a model for other cities and states.
In February, Latter-day Saint leaders released a statement on the Arizona legislation.
“The church is pleased to be part of a coalition of faith, business, LGBTQ people and community leaders who have worked together in a spirit of trust and mutual respect to address issues that matter to all members of our community,” the church said. “It is our position that this bipartisan bill preserves the religious rights of individuals and communities of faith while protecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community, consistent with the principles of fairness for all.”
Soto said the church’s leaders are setting an example in public policy.
“I love how the church is modeling what being a good citizen is, what being an active participant in a pluralistic society and democracy is, while also still adhering to your core beliefs,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part. None of us have changed our core beliefs, and we’ve developed this amazing coalition, partnership and deep friendships. That is what we need more and this comes from today.”
Latter-day Saints and lesbians, gays and bisexual, transgender and queer people have historic understanding about an important principle to minority groups, Soto said.
“When you get to know someone who is of any type of identity or lived experience, and you start to care about that person, it changes the way that you treat not just that person, but the whole group they’re affiliated with,” he said.
That’s why the temple tour continued to build trust between members of the coalition, LGBTQ leaders said.
“None of us have changed anything about who we are, except that we have this bigger family and coalition, now, of people doing wonderful work,” Soto said. “We can agree to disagree, but the truth is, we agree on a lot more based on those two things, of loving your neighbor and building trust with each other.”
North Carolina’s Johnson has watched churches and religious people reject LGBTQ people. The coalition and the temple tour have provided her hope.
“Coming into this space, it’s been really heartening to have people meet me at my basic humanity,” she said. “Every time I’ve come to engage with the folks who are part of the Latter-day Saints, I am experiencing genuine welcomeness and openness and gratitude for me being in the presence of the church. That is to me what, as a person who’s raised Christian, Christianity is about. It gives me hope that we can do work in that space with even more faith traditions.”