Top leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called Tuesday for passage of laws granting statewide protections against housing and employment discrimination for gay and lesbian Utahns -- as long as those measures safeguard religious freedom.
The move, one LGBT advocates have been pushing for years, provides a major boost for the prospects of a state nondiscrimination statute. Such proposals have been bottled up in the legislature for years, despite the church's historic endorsement of similar protections in Salt Lake City ordinances in 2009.
Utah's predominant faith issued the plea for such measures at all levels of government during a rare news conference.
"We call on local, state and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation -- protections which are not available in many parts of the country," said church apostle Dallin H. Oaks.
Mormon officials "believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance," Oaks said, "in protecting the freedoms of all people, while respecting those with differing values."
The LDS Church preaches that sexual relations -- other than those between a legally married man and woman -- run contrary to the laws of God and thus opposes same-sex marriage.
State Rep. Jacob Anderegg, who is sponsoring legislation to protect religious individuals' ability to refuse to marry same-sex couples, spoke about the importance of the church's position Monday, before the landmark announcement.
"Let's be frank: The 800-pound gorilla in the room is: Does the LDS Church get behind it?" said Anderegg, a Republican. "If the LDS Church gets behind it and gives its blessing, then 81 percent of the body who are LDS will likely get behind it. And it's not because the church is coming out and saying, 'Vote this way or that way,' but an endorsement from them does carry weight."
In 2009, the LDS Church endorsed two Salt Lake City ordinances barring housing and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It marked the first time the faith endorsed specific, pro-gay-rights legislation.
Nearly 20 Utah cities and counties have passed nondiscrimination ordinances, according to Equality Utah, which has advocated for the laws. But efforts to codify those protections statewide have come up short in Utah.
Until now, the LDS Church had largely been on the sidelines of the debate over discrimination protection -- notwithstanding its high-profile support for the Salt Lake City measures. There were concerns, in particular, about how such a law might require same-sex couples to share student housing at church-owned Brigham Young University.
State Sen. Steve Urquhart,, the sponsor of the nondiscrimination bill, has said those concerns have been thoroughly addressed, and BYU housing is protected.
Oaks acknowledged that many state legislatures are considering laws relating to LGBT issues of discrimination and the church "is on record as favoring such measures."
At the same time, the apostle decried what he described as "the steady erosion of treasured [religious] freedoms that are guaranteed in the United States Constitution."
For evidence, the Mormon apostle noted California schools' refusal to recognize Christian student groups simply because those organizations require their own leaders to be Christian and to government lawyers subpoenaing the sermons and notes of pastors who opposed parts of a new law on religious grounds.
The push for gay rights was prompted by "centuries of ridicule, persecution and even violence against homosexuals," said Neill Marriott, second counselor in the church's Young Women general presidency. "Ultimately, most of society recognized that such treatment was simply wrong, and that such basic human rights as securing a place to live should not depend on a person's sexual orientation."
As a matter of doctrine, the LDS Church does not support same-sex marriage, Marriott said. "But God is loving and merciful. His heart reaches out to all of his children equally, and he expects us to treat each other with love and fairness."
Above all, the LDS leaders said, the debate about balancing religious and gay rights -- often a polarizing predicament -- should be civil and respectful.
"Nothing is achieved," Holland said, "if either side resorts to bullying, political point scoring or accusations of bigotry."
Compromises, no doubt, will be required.
"Neither side may get all that they want," the LDS Church said in its news release. "We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values."
[Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for the Salt Lake Tribune.]