With news that Mormons will support laws that prohibit housing and job discrimination against LGBT people in exchange for greater religious liberty protections, the Catholic Church finds itself allied with just one other mainstream Christian denomination — the Southern Baptist Convention — in opposing work and housing protections for gays and lesbians.
Some critics say the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints simply wants faith institutions, under the guise of religious freedom, to be able to continue to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
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.
Over the past several years, most Christian denominations have gradually embraced the idea.
As far back as 2009, representatives of several major religious bodies signed a letter signaling support for the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which would prohibit discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in hiring and firing. Among the signatories were leaders from the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, and Quaker churches.
The Methodist Church, which does not condone homosexuality and which has been embroiled in several church trials against pastors celebrating same-sex marriages, has nonetheless published statements supporting equal rights “regardless of sexual orientation.”
The LDS Church did signal support for a local non-discrimination law in 2009, but its announcement earlier this week appears to mark a shift, with the church voicing support for these kinds of laws at the state and national levels. Like Catholics, Baptists, and some mainline Protestant denominations, the Mormon Church still opposes same-sex marriage and does not condone homosexuality.
Polls show that a majority of Americans support anti-bias laws. But leaders of the nation’s two largest Christian churches, Catholics and Baptists, oppose them.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the Mormon announcement “well-intentioned but naïve” and that non-discrimination laws “inevitably lead to targeted assaults on religious liberty.”
Catholic bishops as a whole have gone on the offensive against such laws, although their positions are less black-and-white at the local level.
Representatives from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to US senators in November 2013 voicing opposition to ENDA, saying they “oppose unjust discrimination in the workplace,” but were against the legislation because of religious liberty concerns, and because, in essence, it further “normalized” homosexuality.
But in Salt Lake City, Catholic Bishop John Wester said the Church may be open to some protections for gays and lesbians.
He cited a bill in the last legislative session to protect LGBT people from housing and workplace discrimination. “What I saw looked fine to me. I had no problem with it,” he told Crux. “It was a law that talked about not discriminating against people. The Catholic Church does not discriminate, so I have no problem with it.”
He said he is waiting to see new legislation, and as long as it includes provisions for Catholics “to practice our faith without discrimination, without repercussions or reprisals,” he doesn’t imagine opposing such measures.
In Georgia, Catholic leaders have reportedly signaled opposition to legislation supporters say protects religious liberty, but which opponents believe will lead to discrimination. Catholic bishops in Texas are considering legislation that would prohibit localities from implementing LGBT anti-discrimination laws; they have supported previous iterations of the bill.
Much of the Church’s opposition to non-discrimination laws lies in its continued battle to safeguard itself against what it sees as threats to religious liberty.
Unlike the Catholic Church, with its huge social services infrastructure of schools, universities, hospitals, and charities — and the hundreds of thousands of employees working in them — the LDS Church runs relatively few institutions, and therefore has less exposure to bias claims.
Catholic schools in particular have been targeted in many high-profile lawsuits in recent years after firing employees for issues related to sex. Laws like ENDA may make defending the Church’s position more difficult, some bishops say.
At a press conference Tuesday announcing their position, Mormon elders said that gay and lesbian people should not be discriminated against in matters of employment or housing. But they also said individuals should be allowed to cite religious faith as a reason against performing certain professional acts, like abortion or artificial insemination, and that religious-owned institutions should be free from government intrusion, just like churches.
Catholic and Mormon leaders have teamed up on some social issues, most notably in helping repeal California’s gay marriage law in 2008. After severe backlash, Mormon leaders softened their stance against LGBT people. With Tuesday’s news, some question if that alliance is breaking down even more.
In a speech last week at Brigham Young University, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, said continued collaboration between Mormons and Catholics is necessary.
“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,” Chaput said.
He acknowledged that “the differences in our doctrine and practice are obvious,” but said they “don’t preclude friendship. It doesn’t preclude working together.”
Catholic bishops voted last June to renew an ad-hoc religious liberty committee for another three years. And with the Supreme Court set to rule on same-sex marriage this year, the Catholic Church may find itself embroiled in more fights with gay and lesbian employees and their supporters.