In a surprising January news conference, the church — a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage — supported job, housing and public accommodation protections for gays and lesbians. The announcement was, in part, the product of unprecedented meetings that began five years ago between church leaders and members of the gay community. Earlier this month, Salt Lake City elected its first openly gay mayor.
Then this month, two unrelated decisions, one by the church and the other by the state, brought into stark relief the yawning crevasse that still separates the church from a growing acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in this liberal city.
First, an excommunicated Mormon podcast host revealed a letter from church leadership stating that the children of same-sex couples would not be allowed to be baptized until they turn 18. The same letter to lay leaders of 30,000 congregations around the world reiterated that Mormons in same-sex marriage are considered apostates and could be excommunicated, meaning under church theology they will not ascend to heaven or see their families in the afterlife.
Then, a state juvenile court judge ordered the Utah Department of Family and Child Services to remove an infant girl from a lesbian couple acting as foster parents, saying in his ruling that certain studies purport to show that children live better lives when raised by parents in opposite-sex marriages.
The ruling resulted in a national backlash from LGBT groups, left Utah Gov. Gary Herbert “puzzled” and led the Utah Division of Child and Family Services to file a petition for a stay of the order from Juvenile Court Judge Scott Johansen.
Johansen rescinded his order Friday, but not before the issues simmering beneath five years’ worth of renewed goodwill and camaraderie boiled over in just a week.
Across the country, religious denominations are wrestling with how — and whether — to include gays and lesbians in church life. But in Utah, where the LDS Church is such a dominant force, the recent events have unleashed especially powerful emotions. On Saturday, in response to the church’s letter, a group of Mormons staged a public resignation from their faith.
LGBT Mormons were “wounded” by the church’s message, said Ty Mansfield, co-founder of North Star LDS, a support group for gay and lesbian Mormons.
“Many of them are asking, why are we wasting our time? Is collaborative dialogue even worth it?” Mansfield said. “Even if you’re strictly within the church’s teachings, it still has been wounding to people across the spectrum in a way I could see stalling or ending these collaborative efforts.”
Mansfield said there is a danger in reading too deeply into the church leadership’s unexpected support of a new state law that protects gays and lesbians against discrimination. Mansfield said some people outside the church have interpreted the church’s position to mean it is close to accepting same-sex marriage, which it is not.
The relationship between the LGBT community and the Mormon Church frayed significantly in 2008, when the church urged followers to give their time and money to help pass Proposition 8, the California measure to ban same-sex marriage, which narrowly passed. The courts struck down the measure, and the church faced heated protests — including protests against individual donors to the campaign — that equated Prop. 8 with bigotry.
A year later, in 2009, two men kissing on church property in Salt Lake City were handcuffed by church security. The incident led to a mass protest, a reexamining of the issue among LDS leadership and five years of back-channel negotiations between the church and Salt Lake City gays and lesbians, culminating in the nondiscrimination law adopted earlier this year.
During the last year, members of the gay community praised an openness from the church unseen since the 1970s, referred to among more liberal church members as the Camelot Years. But with a perceived hardening of the church’s position against the gay community, the threat of excommunication looms large, said podcast host John Dehlin, who made public the church’s letter on children of same-sex couples.
“It’s panic-inducing,” said Dehlin, who was excommunicated last year after repeatedly making public statements in support of the admission of women into the church’s priesthood and more acceptance of gay Mormons. “Being excommunicated is worse than dying in Mormondom.”
Tasked with navigating such tricky waters is Jackie Biskupski, a non-Mormon single mother who is a lesbian and was elected mayor of Salt Lake City on Nov. 3. Such a biography might prove politically fatal in most of conservative Utah but not in the small liberal enclave in the state’s capital.
Biskupski, who will take office in January, said that, as mayor, she will walk a narrow path between her supporters in the LGBT community and the larger Mormon population.
“Clearly, people are nervous perhaps about me being the mayor of the capital,” she said, adding that Mormon groups have nothing to fear from her administration, and said the two groups have as much in common as any in the U.S.
“The LDS church is no different than the LGBT community,” Biskupski said. “There is a lot to overcome with the myths about who they are and who we are. They have walked the path of discrimination in this country, and we have walked that path.”
But Biskupski said actions like Johansen’s initial removal of a child from same-sex foster parents do much to set back the relationship between the LGBT community and Mormons.
Gay Mormons feel pushed further away from their faith, said Mansfield, who once had a same-sex relationship and is now married to a woman. He said he understands his church’s position: The family is the most important unit, above everything else.
That’s why, he said, the conservative institution supports a more liberal immigration policy that keeps families together. The same logic, Mansfield said, applies to the church’s position on same-sex marriage.
A commentary issued Friday by Michael Otterson, managing director of LDS public affairs, declares that “church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug of war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.”
Still, Mansfield said, “there was this implicit message that we don’t want you. That’s the way it felt.”
Biskupski is prepared for the challenges she will step into.
“We’re becoming ground zero in this debate,” she said. “And while we try to find answers, the question that I’ll ask is this: Are we coming from a place of love or from a place of fear?”
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