It looked like a stunning reversal: the same church that helped defeat gay marriage in California standing with gay-rights activists on an anti-discrimination law in its own backyard.
On Tuesday night, after a series of clandestine meetings between local gay-rights backers and Mormons in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would support proposed city laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and employment.
The ordinances passed and history was made: It marked the first time the Salt Lake City-based church had supported gay-rights legislation.
The Mormon church — which continues to suffer a backlash over its support last year of Proposition 8, the measure banning gay marriage in California — emphasized that its latest position in no way contradicts its teachings on homosexuality.
But the action is one of the strongest signs yet that even conservative religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage might be willing to support legal protections for gays that fall short of that.
At the same time, the church’s position has angered some of its conservative allies on social issues, prompted questions about whether public relations is its real motivation, and put the church on the spot over how far it will go on similar legislation on the state and federal level.
“This is a very good public relations response that has the additional benefit of actually representing the way the current church leadership thinks,” said Armand Mauss, a retired professor at Washington State University and scholar of Mormonism.
Some of the church’s conservative allies in the gay marriage battles, however, call it a setback. The two new ordinances make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay, bisexual or transgender.
Such legislation robs employers and landlords of their rights and gives legal ammunition to judges sympathetic to gay marriage, said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council.
“It’s disappointing and I’m fearful that it reflects in part a reaction to the attacks they came under after Proposition 8 — an effort to bend over backwards to exhibit tolerance toward homosexuals in some way,” Sprigg said.
Michael Otterson, director of public affairs for the Mormon church, said Wednesday that church leaders were able to support the ordinance because it doesn’t carve out special rights for gays.
Supporting “basic civil values,” Otterson said, does not compromise the church’s religious belief that homosexuality is a sin and that same-sex marriage poses a threat to traditional marriage.
“There are going to be gay advocates who don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough, and people very conservative who think we’ve gone too far,” Otterson said. “The vast majority of people are between those polar extremes and we think that’s going to resonate with people on the basis of fair-mindedness.”
The position is not a reversal, Otterson said. In August 2008 the church issued a statement saying it supports gay rights related to hospitalization, medical care, employment, housing or probate as long as they “do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.”