Petty scorekeeping kept Utah from a needed hate-crimes law

This originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Salt Lake Tribune on March 19, 2016. 

Most Americans embrace the idea of balance. We seek to be well-rounded individuals, we try to harmonize the demands of career and family, we value communities that are diverse. In philosophy, the ancient Greek principle of The Golden Mean refers to the desirable middle between two extremes. Democracy itself could be defined as a government by the people in pursuit of the balance of freedom and equality. There is a promise of wholeness in the concept: security in the idea of something being, as Goldilocks put it, just right.

Yet during this year’s legislative session, many were confused when the idea of balance was invoked to oppose hate crime legislation that would protect all Utahns. In a brief and somewhat cryptic statement, the LDS Church expressed concern that passage of the Senate Bill 107 would upset what a church spokesman described as “the careful balance” between LGBT rights and religious liberty that had been achieved in the non-discrimination legislation last year.

As a supporter of the 2016 bill and an active Mormon, I wanted to better understand what this appeal to balance meant. Why does legislation that would literally protect anyone who is assaulted or whose property is attacked because of their ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation — and aren’t all of us at one time or other representative of those categories? — somehow threaten religious liberty?

As the legislative session wore on, what seemed to be at work here was that the term “balance” was used to describe a situation that sadly was still stuck in the adversarial paradigm that last year’s historic progress supposedly moved beyond. SB 107 would have protected Utahns of color, disabled Utahns, Muslim, Jewish and, yes, Mormon Utahns. But the fact that it would also help LGBT Utahns seemed to set off alarm bells and motivated some legislators to threaten extreme measures such as bills defying the United States Supreme Court and demeaning laws that would persecute transgender people. These tactics don’t feel like compromise to me, they feel like a return to the culture wars where any progress for one side is construed as a loss for the other.

On the final day of debate, I sat in the Senate visitors gallery. I saw two men who were victims of assault because of their sexual orientation sitting behind the sponsor’s desk in silent witness. Those who spoke in opposition to the bill that day had legitimate concerns: Would it inhibit free speech? Would it move us into the realm of so-called thought crimes? Would this bill divide Utahns instead of uniting them? Those issues were, in my mind, worth talking about, and Sens. Stephen Urquhart, Jim Dabakis and Daniel Thatcher (among others) had reasoned and convincing answers to those concerns.

But hanging in the air unspoken was the power a three-sentence statement from LDS Public Affairs wields in our Legislature. The church seemed to want to keep score and make sure that in “the gays versus the Mormons” conflict, LGBT rights gained no ground. Clearly, this message had its desired effect — the bill failed — but not one of the 17 senators who voted nay made reference to this “balance” during final debate. Even though they were falling in line behind the church they are loyal to, I wondered if it was just too hard to speak aloud in support of a false dichotomy: that a gay or transgender person’s happiness threatens another person’s faith.

The road took a disappointing turn this legislative session; the powers of church and state reverted to the kind of us vs. them mentality that Elder Dallin Oaks warned against in his speech last October at the Sacramento Court/Clergy Conference. “We are in this together,” he said. “We need each other, and we can resolve our differences through mutual respect … .”

The church I love and the leaders I sustain need only look homeward to move beyond the perception that LGBT rights are a threat to the free exercise of religion. Do not gay and transgender Mormons — individuals whose faith and commitment to the LDS Church is inspiring — deserve the same rights as others? We have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who every day sit at the crossroads of faith and identity. Would we characterize their gains in any sphere as “our” losses? And who are “we” anyway? Is not the work of building strong and safe communities a mutual undertaking? Let’s hope that next year in the Legislature a careful balance looks less like petty scorekeeping and more like the harmony achieved in a brilliant work of art.

Erika Munson is a co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges.