Op-Ed on the 2014 Housing and Employment Opportunity Act

Op-Ed on the 2014 Housing and Employment Opportunity Act

Erika Munson

One of Christianity’s most beautiful and challenging invitations is to care about the well-being of the person who is most different from you. Jesus taught that the person you are wary of, the person with whom you may deeply disagree, the person you may consider your enemy–may be lying by the side of the road, suffering, and in need of your help. How do we as Latter-day Saints follow this exhortation when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters? Recently, we have seen outreach from church leadership in the form of the mormonsandgays,org website where the tone is conciliatory and the message to gay members is to “stay with us”.

At the grassroots level, Mormons are showing up for pride parades-; more and more LGBT members are trying to make church work for them while remaining true to their essential identity. Nonetheless the church has not changed its doctrine on sexual behavior, and was clearly disappointed in Judge Shelby’s decision overturning the Utah ban on same-sex marriage. So it’s a complex equation: living Jesus‘ teaching of unconditional love for everyone on the one hand, and cherishing traditional conceptions of gender roles and family on the other.

 In the coming months, all Utahns, including LDS families have an opportunity to do both. In January State Senator Steve Urquart (R. St. George ) will introduce nondiscrimination legislation that would provide the same kind of opportunity to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people that the rest of us enjoy when it comes to housing and employment. Far from challenging the Latter-day Saint world view, or threatening our right to worship, this bill would actually support the long-held Mormon tradition of fairness and decency.

The LDS church was a supportive voice in 2009 for a Salt Lake City municipal ordinance that banned housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Michael Otterson Managing Director of Public Affairs for the church spoke to the Salt Lake City Council “The issues before you tonight are the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against…the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations”. Since that time seventeen [?} other cities and towns from Logan to Cedar City have followed suit , but a patchwork of municipal ordinances makes prosecution difficult and costly. To avoid waste and inefficiency, and insure that all Utahns enjoy the same opportunities, we need a state-wide law.

Although I cannot speak for the LDS church (there has been no official comment from them on the state-wide bill) I can attest to how my faith informs support of this legislation. Mormons have a long tradition of tying temporal welfare to spiritual principles. We are renowned for our humanitarian aid to victims of natural disasters, for feeding the hungry, and providing job training. Many congregations have employment or housing specialists whose job it is to help local members and their families find a place to live and a way to support themselves. Church leaders have acknowledged that being gay is not a choice—sexual orientation is an essential part of one’s identity. When a gay person is denied a home and a way to make a living simply for being who he is, the LDS values of family and hard work are undermined. We can justifiably take pride in the many Utah business owners and landlords who treat their employees and tenants with respect and dignity, but discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is still legal in this state, it can and does happen here. Must our gay sons and daughters leave Utah in order to be free from the fear of being evicted or fired at any time?

This bill would not in any way remove the protections that already exist for religious organizations. Churches would still have the right to hire whom they wish and manage their housing facilities as they see fit. Brigham Young University would be included in this exemption; BYU dorms and BYU-approved dorms would continue to rent according to the principles of their honor code. The bill would not affect public accommodations such as restrooms. It is a reasonable proposal that will strengthen families and reassure potential employers that if they move to Utah, all their employees will have opportunity here.

Given the rapid pace of change in the prevailing attitudes toward LGBT people, many Latter-day Saints may feel cut adrift in uncharted waters. It is understandable in turbulent times to be fearful and become entrenched on one side or another. But while fear can save us from imminent physical danger, it is not a helpful emotion as citizens seek to make their communities harmonious and loving places. The LDS church has emphasized time and again the principle that all people should be treated with respect. Supporting this year’s non-discrimination legislation is a way to put the Savior’s words into action: to lend a hand to the person in distress by the side of the road. Find the LGBT person at work, in your neighborhood, or at church, and ask her what passage of this legislation would mean to her. Then call you state representative and senator. Latter- day Saints, whose history speaks to the burden of bitter persecution and exclusion, have a special opportunity to use our conscience to guide us as we manifest our faith and do all we can to make workplaces and neighborhoods places of opportunity for all.