Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

If Utah passes a Mormon-approved LGBT anti-discrimination bill, who will be exempt?

L. Tom Perry, second in line for the LDS Church's presidency, left, shakes hands with Troy Williams, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Utah, following a press conference at the Utah Capitol. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune.
L. Tom Perry, second in line for the LDS Church's presidency, left, shakes hands with Troy Williams, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Utah, following a press conference at the Utah Capitol. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune.

L. Tom Perry, second in line for the LDS Church’s presidency, left, shakes hands with Troy Williams, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Utah, following a press conference at the Utah Capitol. Photo by Francisco Kjolseth / The Salt Lake Tribune.

Progress! This week a bill banning discrimination against LGBT Utahns passed the state legislature’s first hurdle, as Business and Labor Committee members voted unanimously to allow the bill to be decided upon on in the full Senate. That vote was expected today but had not occurred as of press time.

(The Mormon News Report has a great summary of all the news coverage here, with links to half a dozen articles, if you want to learn more about the specifics.)

The bill is viewed as historic because both the LDS Church and prominent members of the LGBT community worked together to iron out its details, and both sides say they had to compromise. That photo above of Elder Tom Perry of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve with the ab fab Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah? I never thought I’d see the day when those two were shaking hands and beaming about the same legislative measure. That’s huge progress.

But the devil’s in the details. If this becomes law, what will it look like for LGBT people in Utah? And what do its “religious freedom” exemptions mean for Utahns who don’t support gay rights?

We’ve seen these questions come up quite recently with the suspension of Salt Lake City police officer Eric Moutsos, who resigned last June after requesting reassignment during the Gay Pride parade. Moutsos, a devout Mormon, said last week he would have been happy to provide protection during the event but did not wish to participate in a choreographed motorcycle celebration, as he was assigned to do. That, he suggested, made it appear like he was celebrating Gay Pride himself, which he does not advocate.

“I felt that by being an actual participant in the parade, I would be perceived to be supporting certain messages that were contrary to who I am,” he told KSL. “I will protect their parade. But I just don’t want to be in the parade.”

Would Mr. Moutsos have the right to decline to participate in such an assignment under the new Utah law?

Probably not, since Moutsos was employed by the city. But the Utah bill offers robust exemptions for religious groups, the Boy Scouts of America (which is heavily affiliated with the LDS Church in Utah) and even some private businesses. According to,

. . . the bill exempts any employers that constitute “a religious organization, a religious corporation sole, a religious association, a religious society, a religious educational institution, or a religious leader, when that individual is acting in the capacity of a religious leader.” Religious leaders are specifically defined as somebody who is an “authorized representative” of a religious organization. The exemption also extends to any corporation or association that is an affiliate or subsidiary of such a religious organization.

The private business issue relates to a question that guest blogger and attorney Bryndis Roberts raised here two weeks ago: would the free exercise of religion give a baker or dressmaker permission to deny service to a gay couple who wanted a wedding cake or gown, for example?

If this bill passes, the answer in Utah may be yes. The bill provides for small businesses that employ fewer than 15 people to be exempt from the nondiscrimination requirement. Also exempt from its nondiscrimination provisions for housing are small-time landlords with fewer than three rental properties.

So it’s not a slam dunk for LGBT rights, but it’s major progress for Utah. More details will likely be hashed out long after the bill becomes law, as it presumably will. On March 16 I’ll be attending a Brookings Institution simulcast that features an A-list lineup of legal experts, politicians, and human rights advocates, all addressing the question, “Gays, Mormons, and the Constitution: Are there win-win answers for LGBT rights and religious conscience?”I hope to learn more about the relevant issues and questions as they unfold.


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • What does it mean?

    It means making as little progress as possible in order to avoid being shunned as completely backwards, while simultaneously trying to maintain as much permissible religious discrimination as possible.

    Are clerks and judges permitted to discriminate on the basis of their religious beliefs, when they are employed by the tax payers? Why do they get to choose whether they will do their jobs, when no one else can?

    Landlords with fewer than THREE rental properties probably covers the majority of them. What do their religious beliefs have to do with the fitness of their prospective tenants to BE tenants? The irony of Christians saying “there is no room at THIS inn” is, shall we say, a but much.

    There is also a “severability” clause in this legislation: if any part of it is found unconstitutional, the entire law goes. It’s what we call a “poison pill”. Both Utah law and federal law prohibit discrimination on the basis of religious belief. If someone virulently antigay chooses to challenge this, you can bet it will go– with no loss of face to the Mormon church. “See, we TRIED!” Or, if someone pro-gay gets sick of the permissible discrimination, they WILL challenge it on the basis of religious discrimination.

    In any case, I suspect that all of the nice protections they are putting in to protect illegal discrimination on the basis of religious belief will have a number of unintended consequences. When the “wrong people” end up discriminated against, these will become more and more apparent.

  • It’s absolutely abhorrent that this so called “church” has quite literally been holding the very basic human rights of the entire LGBT community of Utah to ransom all these years.

  • HI Ben. So what do you think of LGBT groups in UT supporting this measure?
    What else can be expected from UT, considering it “only” took them 14 yrs after the Civil Rights Act to stop the priesthood ban?

  • They are foolish to do so.

    This bill has so many material exceptions permitting discrimination that it is a joke. This is a bill to create segregated businesses in a state where religion permeates every level public discourse.

    Any pretension in calling this an anti discrimination bill is a complete and utter fiction.

  • As you know the Boy Scouts have been battling the issue of homosexual men being attracted to young and teen-age boys.

    The Boy Scouts of America is aware of the experience of the Catholic Church. Father Benedict Groeschel, their expert on the matter, says that 90 percent of the abuse was done by homosexual priests, who were 10 percent of the clergy during the 1980’s and 1990’s when the study was done (and reported in the New York Times). Do the math !! That means that
    homosexual priests abused children 81 times as frequently as heterosexual priests.

    I believe if you were on the BSA’s Board of Directors, you would vote to exclude homosexual adult men from leading Scout Troops. To do otherwise would invite excessive litigation, and cause the demise of this venerable youth organizatio

  • Is this to imply the gay men are more likely to be pedophiles? I see a conflating of homosexuality and pedophilia in the reference to Father Groeschel. Without more evidence I’m unwilling to accept that premise. Meanwhile I think Ben in Oakland has it right as do several of the other posters. Query, how involved were other religious organizations in these negotiations?

  • Bullcrap, Bot. The Boy Scouts, a formerly non-sectarian organization is being subverted by conservative Christian sects who have a bigoted anti-gay agenda. One which has done the organization a great deal of harm for the last generation.

    Father Benedict Groeschel actually was instrumental in covering up church sexual abuse incidents. The man is an expert in evading honest accounts of activities. The lying SOB had the nerve to blame young victims for “seducing the priests”.

    So feel free to take your pernicious, ignorant and bigoted equating of gays with pedophiles and stuff it.

  • Bot, your underlying assumption is that homosexual men are far more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual men. This is simply not the case. See here for a summary of the research to date:

    There is simply no reliable evidence to suggest any additional tendency among homosexual men to molest children.

    Please be more careful about the falsehoods you are perpetrating. As the UC Davis study suggests, the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia and hebephilia is born of ignorance and fear, not actual research data. “Members of disliked minority groups are often stereotyped as representing a danger to the majority’s most vulnerable members. For example, Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of murdering Christian babies in ritual sacrifices. Black men in the United States were often lynched after being falsely accused of raping white women. In a similar fashion, gay people have often been portrayed as a threat to children.”

  • On the surface, I’m sure this “compromise” may look like a “win-win”. But let’s be honest: Neville Chamberlain sincerely thought that he had a true “win-win” situation after sitting down and shaking hands with Adolf Hitler. “Peace in our time!” he declared. Most folks agreed…for a while.

    I think Jana Riess brought up an excellent question about that compromise (“What do its “religious freedom” exemptions mean for Utahns who don’t support gay rights”). But by the time some solid answers appear on the table, it’s going to be WAY too late — especially for the Mormons. Just that simple.

    Here is the most likely answer to Riess’s question: A lot of Mormon folks are going to find out exactly what Eric Moutsos found out — any attempt to stay true to your faith by refusing to publicly “affirm” the gay lifestyle mess when the occasion calls for it, WILL be met with reprisal and punishment. Period.

    This will be true especially after the Supremes have legalized gay marriage from coast-to-coast (soon). Mormon bakers and dressmakers will find their “religious exemptions” somehow overturned in court, just like the Evangelical bakers and dressmakers.

    So it doesn’t matter what “compromises” are signed into Utah state law, just as Hitler’s signature on Neville Chamberlain’s piece of paper didn’t really matter. Mormons sincerely want to meet the Gay Activists halfway — but the Gay Activists are just running whatever game they need, in order to win it ALL.

  • Hi, Maddy.

    I don’t think too much of the proposed law itself. It’s simply the kinder, gentler, flip side of the coin of these so-called “religious freedom” bills, wherein if you don’t like gay people, you can be granted an exemption from the laws we have at every level of government which forbid discrimination on the basis of religious belief. In THIS case, and in THIS case only, religious discrimination is ok because, y’know, Teh Gayz is ickeeeee.

    The difference is that the Mormons are TRYING to do the right thing, in a vague, general sort of a way.

    As for the gay groups supporting it? I believe that in politics, never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I expect that this will have negative consequences extending far beyond those for gay people, and that it WILL come back to haunt Mormonia. I am also fairly sure that those companies that wish to discriminate will do so anyway, but will keep it hidden rather than blatant, because of the negative effects on their bottom lines. Those that wish to be too blatant will probably, for the most part, not be in business for long.

  • Thanks for the comparison of the Boy scouts with the catholic Church. I couldn’t have done it better myself.

    for decades, the BSA banned gay anything. For decades they had a sexual abuse problem with their “straights only” scoutmasters. For decades they covered it up. the Catholic church of course, covered it up for centuries.

    the rest of what you have to say is a defamatory lie. you really ought to read Corinthians for what god thinks of slander and reviling.

  • Correction, jana. It’s not borne of ignorance and fear. It is born of simple minded bigotry and hate. It has a very, very long tradition in religious circles.

    From the national catholic reporter of September 2012;

    The Archdiocese of N.Y. has issued a statement condemning the comments of Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel. If you missed his observations in an interview with the National Catholic Register that’s no surprise. The entire interview was scrubbed last night from NCR’s website after Father Groeschel thoughts on the psychology of priest sexual abusers began to provoke widespread outrage. His comments, which seemed to excuse some priest pedophiles suffering “nervous breakdowns” and “seduced” by teens, came right out of the dark ages of the sex abuse crisis. Groeschel goes well beyond blaming the victim and excusing people who should have known better from reporting sexual assaults of children.”

  • Ben in Oakland, Regarding your statement, “Correction, jana. It’s [conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia & hebephilia] not borne of ignorance and fear. It is born of simple minded bigotry and hate.”

    I’m inclined to believe bigotry and hate arise precisely from ignorance and fear (fwiw, or however pertinent/impertinent this may be to the discussion at hand).

  • I do understand what you’re saying. But when someone refuses to educate themselves, then they have passed beyond mere ignorance and fear. This information has been available for decades to anyone willing to investigate it even a little. It is on the websites of virtually every scientific, medical, and social help professional organization in the entire western world that has anything to say about the subject.

    Not all bigotry is hate, which is why I specified both. A good deal of bigotry is the ever present assumption of an otherwise imaginary superiority as a moral person, a Christian, and a human being.

  • It is really amazing to me that people are not willing to read the bill before commenting on it or attempting to understand why groups like the ACLU, Equality Utah and the Human Rights Campaign would be in favor of it.

    This bill doesn’t pretend to be a public accommodations bill, so has nothing to do with marriage vendors. It is about the workplace and the rental market. The 15-employee threshold is borrowed from Title VII. Both Title VII (employment) and Title VIII (housing) of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 have thresholds that must be passed before an employer or landlord is subject to them. For an employer, until the 15-employee threshold is reached, discrimination in employment (even discrimination based on religious beliefs) is perfectly legal under federal law. The Fair Housing Act has a similar exemption (commonly called “the Mrs. Murphy exemption”) that exempts owner-occupied buildings as long as they have 4 or fewer units.

    These thresholds work well and have served to eliminate discrimination from large portions of the employment and housing sectors. They were the source of fairly serious debate. Title VII started at 25 employees before being dropped to 15 (proposals have been made to raise it as high as 100 employees and drop it as low as 8, but it has stayed at 15 since 1972). In fact, the Utah legislature must think these numbers make sense, because they incorporated them into the Utah Antidiscrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act.

    I believe these thresholds are good policy. They protect fledgling businesses from regulatory burdens that may be too heavy to bear. And, they allow for deliberate choice about growth. I discuss with small business owners on a regular basis whether they are ready to cross the 15-employee threshold and take on the employment law compliance burdens that come with it. Conceivably, a landlord could do the same when deciding whether to purchase that 5th unit. As a litigator, I am sensitive to the cost of responding to a lawsuit alleging a violation of Title VII. For a company of only 15 employees, it can put a sizable dent in the bottom line. (I am aware that employers can and do insure against these kinds of claims. I do not know whether comparable insurance products exist for landlords).

    Adopting these thresholds while adding LGBT to the protected class list (or essentially keeping them since they already exist in the Utah Antidiscrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act) would provide real predictability for Utah employers and landlords as to what is expected of them going forward. They are bright line rules.

  • Hi Jana,

    You misunderstand the reach of the proposed legislation. Here’s a friendly correction:

    If S.B. 296 passes and becomes law, it does not mean that a baker or a dressmaker could deny service to a gay couple. That is a question of public accommodations, and outside the scope of this bill, which is limited to narrow religious exemptions in housing and employment.

    The reality is that *as things stand now* a baker or a dressmaker can refuse service to a gay couple. This bill does nothing to change that. In fact, the bill explicitly states that LGBT people are not to be considered a “protected class” (like sex or race) for all purposes just because of the specific protections this bill affords them in housing and employment.

    It is for this reason, among others, that many in the Utah LGBT community felt betrayed when their leadership supported this bill. It is much more protective of religious freedom in a religiously saturated state than of civil rights for an historically persecuted and marginalized minority. In a state where religious liberty is not in any danger, the bill is disappointing in not going far enough. It represents progress, but only by one small step.

  • All this talk has made me wonder if there is a different moral standard for the church and for members. If the church is unwilling to rent housing to or employ homosexuals it must be doing so on a moral (in its eyes) basis. So if there is only one morality, it seems to me that it should be considered immoral for a member to rent housing to or employ homosexuals. If members can remain in good standing if they rent housing to or employ homosexuals it seems to me that there is no consistency in the moral message.

  • Jana, you write “There is simply no reliable evidence to suggest any additional tendency among homosexual men to molest children.”

    Within the context of a discussion about Boy Scouts, which presumes that all of the children in question are male, are you suggesting that there is an equal tendency among heterosexual men to sexually molest young boys as there would be for homosexual men to do the same? Likewise, would one ordinarily expect to see equal levels of sexual molestation of young girls by heterosexual men as with homosexual men? Frankly, the thought makes reason stare.

    I felt it was fair before commenting to read the entirety of the link you shared. I found it absolutely frustrating because the entire thrust of the lengthy treatise was to claim general equality in overall “child” sexual molestation by heterosexual and homosexual men rather than looking at the percentage of sexual molestation of young BOYS by men who identify as heterosexual or homosexual.

    From the link:

    “On further examination, however, its central argument – that ‘the evidence indicates that homosexual men molest boys at rates grossly disproportionate to the rates at which heterosexual men molest girls’ – doesn’t hold up.”

    When it comes to the Boy Scouts, it doesn’t matter whether heterosexual men molest young girls at an equivalent rate to homosexual men molesting young boys, but rather how EACH fares with regard to young boys.

    Also from the link:

    “Findings indicate that homosexual males who preferred mature partners responded no more to male children than heterosexual males who preferred mature partners responded to female children.”

    Again, this information isn’t the least bit helpful when talking about establishing guidelines for the Boy Scouts of America. But both excerpts DO tend to suggest that even the authors of the link would likely concede that a measureable difference exists in terms of the percentage of heterosexual and homosexual men who might be predisposed to sexually molest a young boy. They avoid specifics on that construct with ever fiber of their beings.

    With regard to the new Utah law, the church has put out its own take on the various facets of the legislation: