Thursday, November 19, 2009

The history of the LDS Church's position on housing and employment rights for gays

UPDATE: Welcome, Times & Seasons readers! You may want to check out the greatest hits of my blog here.

Over the last few days, I have been involved in a conversation at another blog. One of the questions was whether the Church’s recent endorsement of the Salt Lake City anti-discrimination ordinance is "entirely consistent with the Church’s prior position on these matters" as its statement indicates. The Church's current position is certainly consistent with their statement given before the Proposition 8 vote that "The Church does not object to rights . . . regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference." However, the record of the Church previous to the 2008 vote is much less clear.

Before I get into the results of my research, I want to hedge a bit: Because the Church has so many ways of unofficially putting out its message (the Deseret News, mid-level officials, etc.), trying to interpret whether a message reflects the desires of the Church is often an exercise in Kremlinology. Therefore, I will try to give you my primary sources so that you can decide for yourself whether you agree with my conclusions. With that disclaimer out of the way, let me begin . . . .

I initially stated at T&S that I thought that the Church had publicly opposed housing and employment protections for gays. This is because I had remembered reading that they supported Colorado's Amendment 2, which prohibited any designation of gays as a protected class until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. I reviewed my notes, and my source for this was Michael Quinn. His support for this conclusion, however, was based on the fact that Rex E. Lee helped draft the brief in support of the amendment while he was president of BYU, which would have "required specific approval from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles." This seemed somewhat inconclusive to me, and so I went in search of more evidence.

While I could not find any other contemporaneous accounts of LDS involvement in Amendment 2, I did find some information on another event that the Church seemed more involved in. In late 1997, the Salt Lake City council passed an ordinance similar to the one that was just passed. While the Church did not make an official statement at the time, editorials (see also) in opposition to the ordinance were written by the Deseret News, and the Area President over Salt Lake City instructed bishops to encourage their congregations to attend the city council meeting on the night when they were to vote on whether to repeal the ordinance.

While it is likely that none of these items in isolation would provide good evidence as to the Church's position regarding housing and employment rights, taken as a whole, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Church was working against these measures.* Indeed, rhetorical choices such as "granting official sanction to the same-sex lifestyle" sound somewhat familiar.

However, if you really want to figure out if the Church has changed its position on gays and lesbians, just take a tour of old Ensigns. The official position of the Church as recently as 1996 was that there were no such people as gays and lesbians:

We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice in respect to the critically important matter of sexual behavior.

Comparing last week's announcement to that statement is like comparing night and day. By advocating housing and employment rights, the Church has crossed the chasm from adjective to noun--that is, the Church acknowledges that gays and lesbians exist. And that's a mighty big first step.

* There is, however, one really fantastic story in Idaho of how the Mormons were the crucial vote in defeating an amendment similar to Colorado's Amendment 2. But that's a story for another post . . . .


David G. said...

Thanks Nate. It might be worth contacting the blogger greenfrog (, who left this comment on Kaimi's Gays and the Church: Whose Ox is Being Gored? (#60)

As for the Church’s position regarding anti-discrimination laws, I can attest that as of 1992, the Church was very clearly on the side of overturning laws that protected gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination. I lived in Colorado that year — when a public ballot initiative (”Amendment 2″) proposed a state constitutional amendment that would overturn existing anti-discrimination laws already on the books in Denver and Boulder, and that went further and would prohibit anti-discrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians anywhere in the state of Colorado. The Church actively used both its meetings and the fund-raising capacity of its membership to promote that constitutional amendment. The Church was successful in its support, Amendment 2 passed, and the anti-discrimination laws that had previously been in effect in Denver and Boulder were repealed. I had a tiny role in the state court effort to overturn that amendment. We failed, but the US Supreme Court saw things differently and declared Amendment 2 to be a violation of the US Constitution in Roemer v. Evans.

He might be able to point you to more information on CO's Amendment 2.

Charlie said...

I think it's also interesting to note that, previously, LDS leadership clung to extremely dubious, archaic explanations for "the cause" of homosexuality (an absent father, an overbearing mother, etc.) and now they are admitting that the cause is unknown. It seems they are also letting go of their previous claim that homosexuality is a choice (one rooted in "selfishness," to use one of Kimball's favorite words on the subject) and beginning to admit that viewing it as a choice is not only illogical/inaccurate (and goes against all research on the matter), but also cruel.

This is an important step, since, if "suffering from same-sex attraction" isn't a choice that one makes and doesn't always involve the prescribed, stereotypical home scenario, the next step is to recognize that some people are inexplicably gay, which implies treating them humanely instead of demonizing them as deviants whose sexual orientation can be explained by making abstractions about bad choices they must have made (or that their parents must have made). If same-sex attraction can't be accurately conceptualized within a binary system of judgement based on individual choices and accountability, it becomes much more difficult to demonize. I am very glad to see a certain evolution of thought on this subject, however agonizingly slow it may be. Leadership in several other religions is well ahead of Salt Lake City on this, but so many others are so far behind (with little or no hope for evolution of thought).

Kaimi said...

Good analysis, Nate.

Also, the Oaks/Wickman interview could be viewed as a statement against granting some of these legal protections to gay individuals, at least if it is possible that they would be viewed as being "like marriage".

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Would you extend the same argument against same-gender marriage to civil unions or some kind of benefits short of marriage?

ELDER WICKMAN: One way to think of marriage is as a bundle of rights associated with what it means for two people to be married. What the First Presidency has done is express its support of marriage and for that bundle of rights belonging to a man and a woman. The First Presidency hasn’t expressed itself concerning any specific right. It really doesn’t matter what you call it. If you have some legally sanctioned relationship with the bundle of legal rights traditionally belonging to marriage and governing authority has slapped a label on it, whether it is civil union or domestic partnership or whatever label it’s given, it is nonetheless tantamount to marriage. That is something to which our doctrine simply requires us to speak out and say, “That is not right. That’s not appropriate.”

As far as something less than that — as far as relationships that give to some pairs in our society some right but not all of those associated with marriage — as to that, as far as I know, the First Presidency hasn’t expressed itself. There are numbers of different types of partnerships or pairings that may exist in society that aren’t same-gender sexual relationships that provide for some right that we have no objection to. All that said… there may be on occasion some specific rights that we would be concerned about being granted to those in a same-gender relationship. Adoption is one that comes to mind, simply because that is a right which has been historically, doctrinally associated so closely with marriage and family. I cite the example of adoption simply because it has to do with the bearing and the rearing of children. Our teachings, even as expressed most recently in a very complete doctrinal sense in the Family Proclamation by living apostles and prophets, is that children deserve to be reared in a home with a father and a mother.


Nate W. said...


I actually read the Oaks/Wickman interview as progress on the Church's part, as it seemed to recognize that orientation was likely both inborn and permanent. I'll post a bit more on the Church's change in stance on Tuesday (cribbing largely from a paper I wrote my last year of law school).

Steven B said...

"By advocating housing and employment rights, the Church has crossed the chasm from adjective to noun--that is, the Church acknowledges that gays and lesbians exist. And that's a mighty big first step."


Last Lemming said...

By advocating housing and employment rights, the Church has crossed the chasm from adjective to noun--that is, the Church acknowledges that gays and lesbians exist. And that's a mighty big first step.


What they have acknowledged is that people who either profess to be, or are perceived to be, gay or lesbian are discriminated against, and that such is a bad thing. Their position does not acknowledge that the victims are gay. The terms "gay", "lesbian", "homosexual," and even "same-sex attraction" are entirely absent from the statement of support.

Matt Evans said...

Thanks for writing this up, Nate. It's remarkable how fast the church has done an about-face.

And what you describe as the church's adjective-to-noun switch is what I was referring to as their giving up on the "behavior-not-status" distinction in the T&S post. Definitely a big shift.