Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mormon Ladies Discuss the Utah Undie Run and Gay Rights

Nov. 5, 2011. It was a tea party.

It was not the Tea Party, but a tea party.  We were 6 Mormon ladies sitting around a table in a living room in Orem, Utah. Mormons follow a code of health that allows for herbal tea, although not regular tea, but our host served hot cocoa instead. She told us she was holding the event because she had attended a quilting club meeting about the courses and customs that go into a traditional English tea. The hostess, and three guests (including myself) were of British heritage--the other two were Brazilian.

Our discussion of culture led naturally to a recent eye-widening cultural phenomenon. I paraphrase our host: "It was on our way to the General Relief Society meeting. There we were, a bunch of church ladies, just a few blocks away from the (LDS) Conference Center, we looked out the window and saw a huge group of men--they were practically naked!" She laughed as she told the story. What they had seen was the Utah Undie Run (Sept. 24-25.) According to the event website, the official purpose was to "protest against Utah being so uptight."

The Undie Run

2,270 runners participated, says the Salt Lake Tribune. The protest planners asked participants to
write demands for change in marker on their skin. They also set up voter-registration booths, explaining their goal to register 3,000 new young voters. Their political purpose was general, rather than focused on a specific issue. Here's how The Huffinton Post paraphrases the event's leader:
Undie Run organizer Nate Porter says the goal of the event Saturday was to organize people frustrated by the conservative nature of the state's politics.
The short article also contained the following tidbit, intending to provide a little context:
Salt Lake City is the home of the Mormon church, which is a vocal opponent of gay marriage.
The Huffington Post article writer wasn't the only one making connections between the undie run and the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Utah conservative politics. The women discussing the undie run at my tea party supposed the protest may have have been specifically to support gay rights, and set for that night in anticipation of Mormon Utahans from all over the state coming up to Salt Lake for the General Relief Society meeting. One of us posed the question, "If LGBT rights groups are interested in getting conservative Utah voters and politicians to listen to them, why are they trying to get attention in a way that is offensive to Mormons?"

There are quite a few areas where Mormons and gay rights activists misunderstand each other.

 There's a common misconception that the LDS Church sees homosexual persons as sinners that don't deserve civil rights. On the contraire, LDS Church leadership has always asked its followers to respect all people. In 2009, the Church made a significant formal push for gay rights that were finally implemented in Salt Lake City. USA Today reported:
Passage [of this legislation] made Salt Lake City the first Utah community to prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the two new ordinances, it is illegal to fire someone from their job or evict someone from their residence because they are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender.
The Church's official statement website, Newsroom, published an article entitled, Church Supports Nondiscrimination Ordinances, in which Public Affairs manager, Michael Otterson was quoted as saying,
I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree — in fact, especially when we disagree.
The Church never supports candidates or specific political parties, and rarely makes statements on political issues, but it did encourage California members to support Proposition 8, maintaining the traditional definition of marriage. Why is that? Why would the Church support some LGBT rights, and not others?

What many Mormons don't understand about LGBT activism is this: from the perspective of someone in support of gay marriage, it looks like the Mormon community is just another power-hungry group that wants to have complete control of what society will look like. "Mormons can marry whomever they want, why can't we marry who we want, it's none of their business!" "Who I marry isn't gonna affect you, so why do you care so much?" That's the reasoning. The political philosophy is that government should not have the power to keep people from doing something they want if it's something that won't cause physical or material harm to others. Because this logic is so implicit for these activists, they can only assume that the conservative, very Mormon majority is barring them from marriage because they are homophobic, and/or don't like the idea of a society in which a homosexual relationship is treated as equal to a heterosexual one.

To an extent, they're right. I know many Mormons who don't want society to look that way. Meanwhile, as a Mormon who reads the Church's official position on the issues, I know that homophobia is not the reason for the Church leadership's formal interest in preserving the traditional definition of marriage.

Much of this misunderstanding between groups is due to Mormons doing a poor job of explaining why their religious beliefs have anything to do with politics.  When asked, "Why is the LDS Church against gay marriage?" some Mormons answer, "Well, it's because we believe marriage between a man and a woman is part of God's divine plan," which is an accurate description of the doctrine, but not a sufficient explanation for the Church's position on public policy. I must stress that by becoming involved in this political issue, the LDS Church leadership is not trying to force all of society to conform to its religious tenets or standards. (See The Mormon Ethic of Civility.) What it is trying to do is carefully protect its own rights.

We need to separate this into two distinct questions  
1. Where does the Church stand on the definition of marriage for its own members? 
2. Where does the Church stand on the definition of marriage that should be upheld in (or imposed on) society?
In a long Newsroom article titled, The Divine Institution of Marriage, the Church explains several things. The first few sections of the article basically answer the question: Where does the Church stand on the definition of marriage for its own members? It goes into the belief that heterosexual marriage was instituted by God, and even discusses the belief that societies would benefit from homes where children will have both a father and a mother.

Then, halfway through the article, there's a section called, "Tolerance, Same-Sex Marriage, and Religious Freedom." This is where the article finally begins to tackle the question, Where does the Church stand on the definition of marriage that should be upheld in (or imposed on) society? The article heavily relies on statements made by an important Church leader, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Here's an important quotation:
Legalizing same-sex marriage will affect a wide spectrum of government activities and policies. Once a state government declares that same-sex unions are a civil right, those governments almost certainly will enforce a wide variety of other policies intended to ensure that there is no discrimination against same-sex couples. This may well place “church and state on a collision course.”
The Church encourages its members to vote against gay marriage, because of the concern that as a religious institution, it may begin to lose some basic rights. Back when Utah was still a territory, the LDS Church was at odds with the U.S. government on the definition of marriage. Not only were Mormons denied the right to define marriage their own way (we're talking about polygamy here), but the government came in and started confiscating Church property. Here are some examples of areas where the Church could loose its rights as a religious institution if marriage were governmentally redefined.

Elder Oaks:
Advocates and government officials in certain states already are challenging the long-held right of religious adoption agencies to follow their religious beliefs and only place children in homes with both a mother and a father. As a result, Catholic Charities in Boston has stopped offering adoption services.
Other advocates of same-sex marriage are suggesting that tax exemptions and benefits be withdrawn from any religious organization that does not embrace same-sex unions. Public accommodation laws are already being used as leverage in an attempt to force religious organizations to allow marriage celebrations or receptions in religious facilities that are otherwise open to the public. Accrediting organizations in some instances are asserting pressure on religious schools and universities to provide married housing for same-sex couples. Student religious organizations are being told by some universities that they may lose their campus recognition and benefits if they exclude same-sex couples from club membership. 
 Many of these examples have already become the legal reality in several nations of the European Union, and the European Parliament has recommended that laws guaranteeing and protecting the rights of same-sex couples be made uniform across the EU. Thus, if same-sex marriage becomes a recognized civil right, there will be substantial conflicts with religious freedom. And in some important areas, religious freedom may be diminished.
Back to the tea party:

I mentioned to the ladies sipping cocoa and tasting dainty desserts that only 3 Utah counties and 8 Utah cities currently have housing and employment ordinances that protect LGBTs from discrimination. There was agreement among the group that such ordinances are just and necessary. "It's too bad other counties aren't getting on the bandwagon," someone said.


I'm hoping the nature of the gay rights conversation in Utah will change. That is, I hope Mormons will get better at explaining that the Church is taking a stand on this not because it wants to diminish the rights of others, but because it's concerned about religious freedom. And I hope both Utah Mormons and LGBT activists will work together to create and uphold laws that support the rights of both groups.

1 comment:

  1. The preservation of religious freedom is extremely important, but it should not require withholding rights from gays and lesbians--including marriage.