A kiss helps bring
civil rights to Salt Lake City
by Dan Aiello
In a twist that surprised many people, the Mormon Church last week announced its support of anti-discrimination ordinances in Salt Lake City that will make it unlawful to discriminate against a person in housing or employment based on his or her sexual orientation.
The Salt Lake City Council unanimously adopted the ordinances Tuesday, November 10. The ordinances passed after receiving the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and followed a public relations nightmare for the Mormons months earlier.
"We applaud the LDS for their support," said Will Carlson, public policy manager for Equality Utah, who called the Mormon Church's support "substantial."
Mayor Ralph Becker signed the ordinances Tuesday afternoon.
Carlson noted the church did not support his group's statewide "Common Ground" initiative last year, which would have extended similar protections throughout Utah.
"Across most of Utah you can still be fired or evicted for being gay or lesbian, so Salt Lake City's ordinances are an important step in making sure people in Utah are safe in their homes and able to earn a living, but it is only a step," Carlson cautioned.
According to Carlson, one in five LGBT Utahans are residents of Salt Lake City, which has a population of approximately 186,000. Salt Lake City has three neighborhoods known for concentrations of LGBT residents, Sugarhouse, Capitol Hill, and Ninth and Ninth.
Speculation as to why the Mormon Church appeared to change its position on the anti-discrimination protections for LGBT residents focused on a July incident when a gay couple was arrested by Salt Lake City police after kissing on a plaza owned by the church. Officers were called to the plaza after the men were detained by church security guards.
Derek Jones and Matt Aune, a gay couple who live and work in Salt Lake City, were cited for trespassing after they kissed while walking across Temple Square on their way home from a concert. Both men were handcuffed, according to a report in the Salt Lake City Tribune . Charges were later dropped against both men.
Church officials responded to nationwide media inquiries about the incident by stating they treated the couple "no differently" then heterosexual couples, claiming a "no public displays of affection" regulation for the area was applied equally, an argument which was not seen as credible because the location is the main staging area for all Mormon Temple weddings. Subsequent local protests, including three "kiss-ins" in Temple Square, brought additional unwanted attention to the church's anti-gay positions, which became widely known during California's Proposition 8 campaign last year.
LDS spokesman Michael Otterson did not mention the July incident in his remarks to the city council last week.
"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Otterson said in his comments at the city council meeting. His statement is posted on the LDS Web site.
Exceptions in the legislation allow churches "to maintain, without penalty, religious principles and religion-based codes of conduct or rules."
"In drafting these ordinances, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations," Otterson said.
Carlson was asked if the national publicity over the July arrest of Aune and Jones made the difference between the church's lack of support last year for EQUT's Common Ground initiative and what Carlson called the church's "full support" of the city ordinances this year.
"I definitely think it played a role. It wasn't decisive, but neither were our conversations with the church last year. Together, it was enough," Carlson said.
Carlson estimates that between 75 percent and 80 percent of Utah legislators are members of the Mormon Church.
Strong adherence to church leadership and doctrine determines whether or not Mormons remain in "good standing," according to religious anthropologist Professor Richley Crapo, Ph.D., himself a Mormon. Legislation that does not have the support of the church's elders does not pass the state Legislature, Carlson told the Bay Area Reporter last December.