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LGBT-Religious Conservative Dialogue Yields New Utah Law

We were inspired by this wonderful piece from NCDD supporting member Dr. Jacob Hess of All of Life and Political-Dialogue.com on a controversial but promising development in Utah legislation that was brokered by long-term intergroup dialogue. Jacob’s piece explores how dialogue between religious conservatives and LGBTQ advocates created unlikely collaborations, and it holds a lot of insight for us in our work. You can read Jacob’s article below or find the original here.

Did Something Really Good or Really Bad Just Happen in Utah?

Leaning back in his chair, Jim Dabakis – an openly gay state senator from Utah – quoted one columnist who recently called him a “quisling” for his efforts to explore potential common ground with Mormon legislators.

He added with a wry smile, “I’m not even sure what that word means…but it doesn’t sound good!”  (He’s right! quisling = “a traitor who collaborates with an occupying enemy force.”)

Depending on your perspective, something emerged from Utah’s 2015 legislative session last week that is either a “landmark,” a “watershed moment” and even a “miracle” – or a bill variously called “pathetic,” “shameful” and “the baddest of bad ideas.”

Disagreements aside, almost everyone might agree on how surprising it was to see Jim Dabakis hugging a Mormon apostle, Tom Perry, at the bill’s signing ceremony.  What’s up with that?!


After the extensive Mormon support of California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, relations between the LGBT community and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were anything but tranquil. A year later, Church security detained a gay couple kissing on Temple Square in an incident that became another touch-point for hostility – ultimately compelling leaders from both the LGBT community and the church to begin meeting in person.

The first of these meetings, summarized in the L.A. Times and Salt Lake Tribune, was described as “awkward” and “quite uncomfortable” – until, at least, people began to share details of their personal journeys. Alongside surprising tears and laughter, one participant reflected that ultimately, “what everyone found is that we really liked each other.”

A second meeting was organized – then a third.  They began to happen regularly. One Mormon who participated in these early conversations described them as “defined by feelings of love and respect and a desire to make things better.” Dabakis stated, “Both sides found out they had plenty to learn about each other, and both sides have come a long way in their mutual understanding.”

By the time Christmas season rolled around, the LGBT activists involved in the conversations were invited with their same-sex partners to be special guests at the popular Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas concert. Dabakis recalled,We met in church headquarters, hugged, introduced all our partners. As they were taking us to the VIP seats, we walked across the plaza where the kissing went on. And a church elder said laughing, ‘Anyone want to kiss? No problem.’”

Reflecting on the significant change in atmosphere from these earlier years, Dabakis said, “there was a hostility and a bitterness and a disdain and a disrespect for each other, and we have gotten through that… Without those conversations, we’d still be two camps ensconced in the mountains shaking their fists at each other.” One participant said the discussions “reaffirmed for me the power of people talking to each other – even if you have incredible differences. You start to see the humanity.”

Embracing common ground. 

Once actual relationships began to form, some basic common ground quickly became obvious. In a move that surprised many (if not the dialogue participants), the Church formally voiced public support for a 2009 Salt Lake City ordinance on housing and employment nondiscrimination for the LGBT community. “The issue before you tonight,” LDS Church spokesperson Michael Otterson said at the city meeting, “is the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against… In drafting this ordinance, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations.”

This event was the beginning of what some have tried to characterize as the church being “swayed” and experiencing a “change of heart” or even some contrition for earlier political involvement. Church leaders have described it much differently – as a continuation of action consistent with core beliefs in a changing political environment.

Apostle D. Todd Christofferson clarified, “This is not a doctrinal evolution or change, as far as the church is concerned,” the apostle said. “It’s how things are approached.”

Senator Dabakis agrees.  In a 2013 interview exploring the ongoing dialogues, he emphasized that there are still many points of disagreement: “I don’t think the church has given one iota on gay marriage – maybe they never will – and neither have we. On the other hand, we have found a lot of commonalities that we can work on” – highlighting a joint efforts to help homeless kids.

In recent years, Church leaders have also increasingly encouraged members to follow the example of Christ in working with disagreements. Apostle Dallin Oaks encouraged Latter-Day Saints in 2014 to respond with “civility” when their views are not upheld in judicial or legislative decisions: “When our positions do not prevail, we should accept unfavorable results graciously, and practice civility with our adversaries.”  He also encouraged members to reject persecution “of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.”

The message has been that Church members can practice this respect without compromising their own theological convictions.  As general women’s leader Neill Marriott explained at an early 2015 press conference, the Mormon belief in the traditional family “comes from sacred scripture and we are not at liberty to change it.”

At the same gathering, Dallin Oaks and others encouraged further exploration of balanced “legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment, and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants, and transportation.” In a subsequent interview, he clarified the Church’s broader argument that neither religious freedom nor non-discrimination were “absolutes” – and that limitations and exceptions needed to be acknowledged for each.

Shortly after this press conference, legislators in Utah began meeting with gay rights and conservative leaders in extensive deliberations to explore potential policies that brought together both nondiscrimination and religious freedom elements into one bill (SB 296). Describing the experience, Senator Dabakis said, “I think it’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Out of these deliberations, leaders and legislators gathered to announce a bill (SB 296) that represented common ground that both sides felt they could agree upon, as well as (slight) compromises [1] each were willing to make at this time. What exactly to make of this simultaneous policy initiative is a matter of widely diverging interpretation.

Best or Worst of Utah?

Some observers have insisted that what subsequently unfolded is simply another reflection of Mormon prejudice. “It is just another scheme, you watch,” one person said.  Others called it “a PR stunt and nothing more” and “a craftily crafted crafting of crafty exemptions.” [2] Nancy Wilson from Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) argued that local gay leaders had become “pawns in a global strategy of placing religious rights over all other constitutional and civil liberties.”

Those most closely involved in the actual deliberations, however, almost universally saw the experience and outcome very differently. Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams called the action a “monumental day” and suggested that “This vote proves that protections for gay and transgender people in housing and the workplace can gracefully coexist with the rights of people of faith. One does not exist at the expense of the other.”  Bill sponsor Steve Urquart stated, “LGBT rights and religious liberties are not opposite; they are not mutually incompatible.”

One legal consultant stated the bill gave “great assurances to religious believers that extending LGBT rights does not have to wash out the character of their faith communities.” Apostle D. Todd Christofferson agreed, describing the bill as a mechanism for protecting the LGBT community “in a way that was not threatening to other things that we hold precious.”

Senator Dabakis summarized, “It’s incredibly important in our community that we make sure that religious liberties are protected, and I think that [this bill] does that and it does it very, very well. It also protects the LGBT community against discrimination. That’s what we set out to do. I think that’s what we do.”

The LDS Church also issued a statement: “In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others. While none of the parties achieved all they wanted, we do at least now have an opportunity to lessen the divisiveness in our communities without compromising on key principles.”

‘Compromise’ a good thing?

Recent surveys show the general public increasingly wants the U.S. Congress and other elected officials to find pragmatic compromises that diverse communities can live with. In our winner-take-all political atmosphere, however, the word “compromise” still retains a pejorative sense for many. As Washington Post journalists point out, citizens have mixed feelings about ‘working together’ on certain issues:

Everyone likes the idea of compromise – both in politics and in life more generally. We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people who are always looking for the common-sense middle ground on a given issue and we want our politicians to reflect that approach. But, our desire for compromise goes out the window when it’s an issue that matters to us and/or where we are convinced we are right.

Some members of both communities reflected this kind of resistance. For instance, one person argued that when it comes to nondiscrimination, “‘balance’ or ‘compromise’ is not applicable here. You don’t compromise where the protection of your civil rights are concerned. You don’t beg and cajole for it. You don’t even ask politely…You demand it as your right as an American citizen.” Another said, “How about just saying you can’t discriminate for any reason. Period.”

Translation:  When it comes to nondiscrimination, there are no exceptions, no limitations, and no compromises that should be considered.

Similar sentiments were heard from citizens on the right: “As a religious practicing Christian I can’t help but feel we just struck a deal with the devil to allow a little more wickedness to be accepted into society. Right is right and wrong is wrong… I feel like good Christians have just been pushed a little more out of the way for the LGBT movement’s agenda.” Southern Baptist Convention leader Russell Moore cautioned that proposals to address discrimination against gay people in employment or housing “inevitably lead to targeted assaults on religious liberty.”

Translation:  When it comes to religious freedom, there are no exceptions, no limitations, and no compromises that should be considered.

Those involved in the Utah dialogues, by contrast, came to see win-win solutions by working together: “Both sides need protection under the law,” one person wrote. “I am glad to see compromise. We all want freedom to live and function under our convictions and life choices, religious or otherwise.” Senator Steve Urquhart stated, “That’s what we do in America – we balance rights.  We balance liberties.  And I think we’re doing a fine job of that in this legislation.”

Fred Sainz, a vice president with the Human Rights Campaign, agreed:  “This is all upside. The fact that employers will be prohibited from discriminating, and the fact that the LDS church could work towards common ground should be a model for common ground.” He continued, “Legislation is about compromise. The idea is, were you able to preserve principles important to your [religious] community, and the principles most important to our [LGBT] community were preserved and strengthened.”

Remaining questions.

Both sides in the deliberation also agreed there is more work to be done. Kent Frogley, with the Utah Pride Center, called the bill a “huge step forward” – adding, “It’s not perfect, but there are still lots of opportunities to work together and continue to evolve.” And a summary from the Mormon Newsroom acknowledges the problem that to this point, no current bill yet addresses “the provision of goods and services in the marketplace” – noting this as “an area that is simply too divisive to find a middle ground at this time.”

As both communities take future steps towards additional common ground legislation, it will be helpful to acknowledge basic differences in how both discrimination and religious freedom are interpreted and viewed. For instance, there is not wide agreement concerning to what degree religious freedom is under threat – and what appropriate limits ought to be pursued or allowed. One commenter asked, “Religious freedom is already protected, so why go to such lengths?” Another said, “Religion needs no more protection. They have far too much protection as it is.”

The religious side, by contrast, points to public sentiments that highlight their own desire to affirm protections for open religious expression – e.g., comments such as “Keep it in [worship service] and no one will care. Share it in public and you get what you deserve.”/ “Leave your religion at home or at church where it belongs.”

When it comes to the meaning and limits of nondiscrimination, similar differences in perspective exist.  Some, for instance, see Utah’s legislative compromise as simply a “license to discriminate” or “legalizing discrimination.”  Others label the bill as “sidestepping discrimination laws” or “trying to justify discrimination in the name of god” or “freeing religious people to discriminate at will.”

By contrast, religious authors who advocate some practical benefits of the law, suggest that “the better view is that it is not discrimination for a religious organization to require behavior consistent with its religious doctrines.” Senator Dabakis himself also explained why he felt the bill’s protections were “even handed” in protecting “people in expressing their religious opinions – but also their expression of marriage and sexuality.”

These and other disagreements remain to be explored and considered in future deliberation, between both citizens and their representatives. The difference now is that people in Utah see a way forward that both sides can support.

Looking forward.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who helped draft the “Utah compromise” legislation, stated prior to the bill’s passage, “If Utah can get this balance between religious liberty and gay rights right, I really think it will be the pivot moment for the country.” She described the legislation as “détente” and a “truce in the culture war”:  “We have to find a way to live together. We just can’t endlessly be litigating against each other. We can’t endlessly be in culture wars.”

Senator Dabakis reflected, “We’ve found a way where people who have totally conflicting ideas, that were at the edge of war in 2008, have rolled up their sleeves, worked together, and built bridges rather than blow them up… Then we have walked across that bridge together.” He continued, “Oh, if the country could be like this.  This bill is a model – not just of legislation, but more importantly of how to bridge the cultural rift tearing America apart… I know that, together, we can build a community that strongly protects religious organizations, constitutional liberties, and, in addition, creates a civil, respectful, nurturing culture where differences are honored and everyone feels welcome… I’m so proud of our state.”

Since every state is different, clearly the details of law won’t apply everywhere.  But as stated by one journalist, perhaps it isUtah’s path to newly passed legislation that… might be more of a template for the nation than the law itself.This includes a long-term process of seeking understanding, combined with a willingness to act together. As former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt stated at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, “I think a key element of the secret sauce here is moving to meet the needs of both simultaneously. It has to happen at the same time because the other side will not trust that you will come back and protect them later.” [3]

Despite these intentions and hopes, Troy Williams, Jim Dabakis, and other gay rights leaders in Utah continue to be accused by some observers of being “sell-outs” – people who got “played” by Utah religious leaders.

These critics are wrong. The open-hearted approach Dabakis, Williams, and others (like Kendall Wilcox, with Mormons Building Bridges) have taken has been crucial in galvanizing a legitimately fresh and vibrant dynamic of good will and respect in Utah. Spend time with any of these leaders and you will learn for yourself the courage and grace these deliberations have required.

Even though none of these leaders are entirely happy with the legislation, there is a sense of empathy and appreciation that it represents the common ground Utahans are ready to stand on right now.  As that empathetic spirit continues to shape the conversations ahead, this author believes that the LGBT community will find many in the Utah religious community willing to substantially compromise on public accommodations – even as other, more basic areas of free religious expression continue to be protected.

Even those who disagree on the ultimate worth of this legislation might agree that there’s something intriguing about the surprising degree of good will that characterized these events. In a spontaneous moment of celebration at the signing ceremony last week, Senator Jim Dabakis and Mormon apostle L. Tom Perry pointed at each other in appreciation and affection, “You did it!” “No, you did it!”

What’s up with that?!

You can find the original version of Jacob’s article on his website at http://political-dialogue.com/2015/03/20/did-something-really-good-or-really-bad-just-happen-in-utah.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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