Catholic bishops should learn from the Mormons

by Thomas Reese

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The U.S. Catholic bishops could take a lesson from Mormon leaders on how to deal with religious liberty and gay rights.

The Mormons have been strong allies of the Catholic bishops in the fight against gay marriage and the protection of religious freedom. But when the Mormons saw they were on the losing side in this fight, they were willing to compromise to protect what they considered essential.

Like the Catholic church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints respects tradition and does not change teaching easily. But Mormons do have a pragmatic side. With the entire nation aligned against them in 1896, they gave up on polygamy as part of a deal to get statehood for Utah. When they see that they are losing, they are willing to make compromises.

In addition, Mormons, like Catholics, are in principle opposed to discrimination, so they wanted to find a way to do the right thing while at the same time protecting their institutions. They did not want to be identified in the public's mind as simply anti-gay.

The Mormon leadership began to rethink their political strategy (but not their theology) after California's Proposition 8 first succeeded in banning gay marriage in California in 2008 and then was overturned by a federal court in 2010. The Mormons had partnered with the Catholic bishops in spending millions of dollars in a bitter fight over the proposition, but they ultimately lost. They, like the U.S. bishops, had been pilloried nationwide for their opposition to gay marriage.

In 2013, the issue arrived in their backyard when a federal court overturned a Utah law banning gay marriage. The Mormon leadership concluded that fighting an interminable but losing battle against gay rights was not good for the church. Better to compromise now than lose everything in the future.

Even before the Utah law was overturned, secret meetings began between church leaders and the LGBT community, according to The Washington Post. These meetings included Utah Sen. Jim Dabakis, a Democrat and the state's only openly gay legislator, and Michael Purdy, an LDS lobbyist.

The legislation, signed into law by Republican Gov. Gary Herbert in March, adds sexual orientation to the list of protected classes against whom employers and landlords cannot discriminate. Utah had never had a law outlawing discrimination against gays.

But the bill exempts faith-based schools, hospitals and organizations. It also protects individuals who express their views at work as long as they are not harassing anyone. Gay rights leaders were willing to accept these exemptions in order to get protection against discrimination in housing and employment.

Meanwhile, legislation to protect religious freedom ran into trouble in Indiana and Georgia. These proposals were more expansive than Religious Freedom Restoration Acts passed in other states and were seen by the gay community as last-ditch attempts to protect discrimination. The proposals could not withstand opposition not just from gays, but also from the business community.

The lesson, according to Jonathan Rauch, a supporter of gay marriage and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, is that "the days of the unilateral Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) are over. The best way to move forward on religious liberty is in tandem with some form of gay rights, anti-discrimination laws and not in isolation from it or in opposition to it."

The country is presented with a choice of two models, Rauch said:

There is a Utah model, which can produce a win-win and a consensus outcome and can leave everybody feeling more protected and safer to live according to the lights of their conscience. And then you got the Indiana model, which heightens the contentiousness and to my mind hurts both sides, but especially hurts the religious side. It sets up religious liberty to look like an excuse to discriminate.

The Catholic bishops could learn from the Mormons, who saw which way the country was going and found a way to live with it.

Rauch said he thought it was too late for compromise between religious leaders and the gay community, but Utah proved him wrong. He said he feared that gay organizations would be unwilling to come to the table.

"Utah bought us an extra year or two by showing how it can be done," Rauch said. "If Utah hadn't happened and you had seen one, two or three more of these state mini-RFRA go through or go close to going through with the support of Catholics and Evangelicals, I think it might well have been too late."

Prior to Utah, the gay community saw the state movement for new religious liberty laws as a last-ditch effort to make sure it was legal to discriminate against them. In that case, "gay people would have thrown up their hands and said, 'Look, they have weaponized religious liberty,' " Rauch said.

On the other hand, "you can still get the gay rights side to the table into negotiations to do some stuff that involves a real stretch on the gay rights side," Rauch said, "if there is a brass ring to grab at, namely some more protection against discrimination."

The Mormons have shown that if protection of religious liberty is combined with an expansion of protection of gays from discrimination, then a deal is possible.

Will the Catholic bishops learn from the Mormons?

The Catholic diocese of Salt Lake City was not part of the negotiations over the legislation, but it had for the last two years supported nondiscrimination legislation in the state. According to Jean Hill, the diocese's lobbyist, the diocese supported the legislation at the conclusion of the process when it was being voted on by the legislature and going to the governor for his signature.

"From our perspective as a Catholic diocese," said Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, "we felt that this legislation honored the rights of both the LGBT community as well as the religious community. It allowed us to have our beliefs in the public square and to have people in the LGBT community not being discriminated against in such basic things as housing and employment. We felt it was in line with our Catholic social teaching."

After the legislation was signed into law, the diocese issued a statement saying that the legislation ensures "that all people in Utah have equal access to at least two essential services -- housing and employment -- while also protecting religious freedom."

"The teachings of our church are clear -- God loves each of us, regardless of, or perhaps because of, our flaws, sins or failings," the statement continued. "If we believe we are all created and loved by our God, we can do nothing less than support a bill that protects individuals from discrimination when seeking a place to live or a means of supporting themselves. The bill strikes a fair and just balance between providing for these basic needs and protecting the rights of people of faith to exercise their beliefs."

Hill said she believes Utah is a good model for the rest of the country. "For us it was just a matter of it reflected our belief that we don't discriminate against people," she said. "It doesn't force us to do anything that we wouldn't be able to live with nor does is force any other person of faith to do what they wouldn't be able live with."

Wester agreed that "it could act as a kind of a template pointing out the principles that need to be addressed," but noted that "each state has its own constellation of issues that have to address."  

"To me what was significant," Wester said, "was that members of the community can come together, obviously representing different constituencies, and can dialogue and can try to work something out in a respectful, courteous manner that will allow for all parties to feel that they have been listened to. I thought that was significant. You don't have to be constantly haranguing one another." 

Hill agrees that the key to Utah's success was that "it involved all of the stakeholders and it really did try to create a good balance." It does not work, she said, if "people are just staking out their positions and neither side is willing to really come to the table and talk about how to make this work."

Time is running out for the bishops. They need to take the initiative in supporting legislation banning discrimination against gays while protecting their religious liberty concerns. They have to stop being simply negative. Too much of their talk is legalistic when it should be pastoral. They need to speak like pastors. They need to sit down with gay rights leaders and try to work out a deal.

In addition, the bishops need to make clear that while a priest cannot officiate at a gay wedding, there is nothing morally wrong with a Catholic florist, photographer, or baker serving a gay marriage. It's a job, not a blessing. On the other hand, while there is no excuse for exempting nonreligious corporations from discrimination, gay activists should be willing to be generous in exempting individuals who would be wet blankets at their weddings anyway.

No matter what kind of exemptions are provided to church institutions, the bishops still need to rethink their attitude toward their gay employees. It is totally inconsistent to punish gays for violating the church's teaching on sex if the church does not also punish heterosexual employees for sexual sins.

The church employs Catholics and others who have been divorced and remarried, and it even gives benefits to their new spouses. Church institutions also do not normally fire unmarried employees who are having sex. No one thinks that these actions by the church imply its endorsement of its employees' lifestyles. Treating gay employees the same as heterosexual employees would not make people think the church has changed its teaching. 

It is time for bishops to stand up and say, "There is nothing Christlike about discriminating against gay people, firing them from their jobs, turning them down for housing, so let's work to protect them, and let's also get some of the protections we need." It is time for the bishops to follow the Mormons. 

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Thomas Reese's column, Faith and Justice, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

A version of this story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: Catholic bishops can learn from the Mormons.

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