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Strange Bedfellows: Mormons Support Utah Gay Rights Law; Catholics to End DC Social Services

By L. K. Regan

For the first time in its history, the Mormon Church has announced that it will support a piece of gay rights legislation, in the form of Salt Lake City laws banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender persons. The laws particularly apply to housing and employment, and are the first in Utah to prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The church's support for the laws startled many observers, given the Mormons' well-known support for Proposition 8 in California. In fact, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) may have been responsible for as much as 50% of the donations to the "Yes on 8" campaign last year. But Michael Otterson, the LDS's director of public affairs, put Mormon support for the law in the context of continued opposition to gay marriage. "The church supports these ordinances," he said, "because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage." The Mormon church allows gays as members, but insists that they remain celibate. Gay marriage is nowhere on their horizon.

Gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah is not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth, however. "What happened here tonight I do believe is an historic event," said Brandie Balken, the group's director. "I think it establishes that we can stand together on common ground that we don't have to agree on everything, but there are a lot of things that we can work on and be allies." And because the LDS is hugely influential in Utah politics, despite rarely directly intervening in legislative matters, gay rights advocates also hope that the more than 80 percent of state lawmakers who are Mormon might begin to rethink their stance on gay rights issues. While gay marriage may be off the table, some civil rights protections for the LGBT community will go a long way in this conservative state.

On the other side of the spectrum, Catholic Charities, the Catholic Church's social services arm, has threatened to stop offering services to residents of Washington, D.C. if the City Council goes ahead with a plan to pass a bill preventing discrimination against same-sex couples. Catholic Charities is in possession of city contracts that allow it to assist tens of thousands of people with adoption of unwanted children, alleviation of homelessness, and lack of health insurance. But the Church does not recognize gay marriages, and is concerned that if the District approves legislation preventing discrimination against same-sex couples, they will be forced to, for instance, offer employee benefits to same-sex spouses. Apparently, the reach of prejudice is greater than that of charity.