THE BLOG

Two Wrongs and Nothing Right in Utah

03/02/2015 11:11 am ET | Updated Mar 29, 2015

I grew up in Utah.

I went to high school and college in-state.

Ready for some Thomas Wolfe action now?

I have family there and worked in local media, so when I tell you "the church" opens up a mic to talk to the world about something important, people there pay attention, and take it as true. That open-mic really doesn't happen too often in Salt Lake City. The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- or Mormons, to you -- don't often call a news conference to talk about marriage equality, which it has publicly said it does not support. When it does, it carries weight -- God-speaking-kind of-weight with the majority LDS taxpayers and voters.

However, with the U.S. Supreme Court having decided to take up the same issue, it sounded like the Church wanted to get out in front of any possible ruling that would legalize gay marriage and produce lawsuits against the church for discrimination or other rights violations. To that end, church leaders went live on Salt Lake City TV-and-radio combo KSL to address what it referred to as issues of "religious freedom."

A quick summation? They'll support gay rights if lawmakers support legal protections for religious practice which might very well include discrimination on any number of grounds, but mostly on grounds of sexual orientation (despite the Church specifically saying it didn't support discrimination of precisely that kind).

But wait a minute -- wouldn't a codified protection of "religious liberties" mean that same non-discriminating church would have the right to publicly declare it won't hire gays or lesbians or the anyone from the trans community because of religious objections?

Another things makes it fishy, too. In 2009 the Church already came out and said it would support rules prohibiting that discrimination.

Are they being sneaky?

The results of my own unscientific poll of Utahns in the Salt Lake media revealed an unexpected take on this. Many seemed to think the Church had raised the "white flag of surrender" with only one or two conditions. Almost all the newspapers in the state described the subject of the news conference the same way Church leaders did -- in an oxymoronic fashion as a news conference on "religious liberties," when in the end it sounded like anything but.

LDS Church-owned KSL should come in for special criticism for cutting off the conference (at least on radio) after Church leaders had essentially read their statement. Those listening didn't have a chance to listen to the individual reporters asking potentially embarrassing questions, which pretty much means the "news conference" ended up as a no-questions asked, "here's what we say on the matter and that's that," kind of meeting.

KSL -- for its part the states most watched and listened to media outlet -- immediately gave us comment from Senator and Tea-Party favorite Mike Lee who decided to simply back up what he'd heard. He also made sure we all knew his church (he's a member and his late father was president of LDS-owned Brigham Young University, the Bob Jones of the West) very much wanted to avoid any future public ridicule on the matter. Church leaders said the same and seemed to make it a big deal. Golly -- they sure sounded like all that criticism hurt their tender feelings!

Shouldn't the Senator at least know the law doesn't provide a right for anyone to be safe from that ridicule -- you know, we call it "criticism" or "opinion" and the First Amendment makes it sacrosanct. That same glorious First Amendment which Mr. Lee and his church want to invoke for defense of their beliefs about homosexuality and marriage equality.

And if one needs to know what the law says about "protecting religious liberties" simply read more about 1993's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

Guess what? In 1997, The Supreme Court found the Act unconstitutional at least in part.

You'll forgive my lack of legal expertise because I'm a layman, not a lawyer. However, I do like to read, and read about something called "The Sherbert Test" from a case in which the high court created a two-part test to determine if a person's religious liberties have suffered damage.

First, SCOTUS said the claim of a violation had to be based on a seriously held religious belief.
It also said that violation -- by the government -- had to significantly hinder an individual's practice of said belief.

That test got thrown out itself later when the Court declared itself the final arbiter of cases involving First Amendment tests.

In the end, those who've struggled for equal rights in the Beehive State welcomed the news and said it took years to get that concession. Others took more time to digest what it all meant. The New York Times Op Ed people said it best online by saying the request for protections for religious freedoms wasn't needed.

The Times said we already have laws on the books that protect freedom of religion in this country -- the U.S. Constitution and specifically that First Amendment.