The Mormon Church has come out against the Equality Act ahead of expected debate in the U.S. House on Friday, blasting the federal LGBTQ civil rights bill as a threat to “religious freedom.”
“The Equality Act now before Congress is not balanced and does not meet the standard of fairness for all,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claimed in a statement on Monday. “While providing extremely broad protections for LGBTQ rights, the Equality Act provides no protections for religious freedom.”
The Equality Act seeks to shield LGBTQ people from discrimination in nearly all areas of public life, including housing, public accommodations, employment, education, jury service, credit, and federal funding. Introduced in the House by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) this March, it would do so by adding protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.
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But in the statement published to Deseret News, the LDS Church’s official newspaper, claims those provisions would erode “long-standing religious rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” as well as threatening “religious employment standards,” “religious education,” and “religious charities.”
The Equality Act would “impose secular standards on religious activities and properties,” claims the Mormon Church, calling the legislation “unbalanced [and] fundamentally unfair.”
While many viewed the condemnation of the Equality Act as representing a step back on LGBTQ rights, Mormon leaders maintain they have been consistent on equality. The statement claims the church is “on record favoring reasonable measures… that ensure LGBTQ persons fair access to important rights, such as nondiscrimination in areas like housing, employment and appropriate public accommodations.”
“This does not represent a change or shift in Church doctrine regarding marriage or chastity,” the Mormon Church notes.
That portion of the press release references what is widely known as the “Utah compromise,” a 2015 nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ people in employment in housing. Passed with the backing of the Mormon Church, it made Utah the first Republican-majority state to pass a statewide LGBTQ rights bill.
But while the LDS Church suggests that bill balanced “ongoing conflicts between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights,” the reality is more complicated. The legislation provided wide carve-outs for religious institutions in Utah to continue discriminating in the name of faith. For instance, there’s nothing in the bill preventing Brigham Young University—the world’s largest Mormon college—from kicking out a gay student for holding hands with his boyfriend on campus.
These scenarios are not hypothetical. Under its controversial honor code policy, Kris Irvin, a transgender student at BYU, made national headlines in 2018 when he was threatened with expulsion if he underwent top surgery. Rather than face discipline from his college, Irvin elected not to go through with the procedure.
Given the protections for institutions like BYU, critics of Utah’s nondiscrimination law have alleged the measure is a “religious freedom” bill cloaked in LGBTQ rights legislation. Utah does not have a separate RFRA law on the books.
Despite criticisms, the Mormon Church continues to assert that a similar “compromise” is needed at the national level.
“When conflicts arise between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights, the Church advocates a balanced ‘fairness for all’ approach that protects the most important rights for everyone while seeking reasonable, respectful compromises in areas of conflict,” the LDS Church claims. “The Church affirms this as the best way to overcome sharp divisions over these issues.”
The Mormon Church, which represents 1.8 percent of the U.S. population, isn’t the only religious organization that has come out against the Equality Act. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church have also censured the proposal.
President Donald Trump has joined them in opposition to the LGBTQ civil rights law. In a statement first published in the Washington Blade, a senior official in the Trump administration claimed the Equality Act is “filled with poison pills that threaten to undermine parental and conscience rights” in its current written form.
“The Trump administration absolutely opposes discrimination of any kind and supports the equal treatment of all,” the unnamed official claims.
The Democratic-controlled House is expected to vote in favor of the Equality Act after Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed its passage is a “top priority” for the 2019 legislative session. However, it’s unlikely to survive the Senate, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 53 to 47.
But no matter the Equality Act’s eventual fate, the Mormon Church is likely to continue struggling in its attempt to balance LGBTQ rights and “religious freedom.” Just months after passing the 2015 nondiscrimination law, it instituted a policy preventing the children of same-sex couples from being baptized in the LDS faith. More than 30 LGBTQ youth are estimated to have taken their own lives in the three months following the announcement.
While the LDS Church was lauded for backing an LGBTQ inclusive hate crimes bill signed into law last month, that legislation drew some criticism for including protections on the basis of religion and political expression. Under that law, a Trump supporter harassed or targeted for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat could claim to be the victim of a hate crime.