02/17/2015 11:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mormons and 'Religious Liberty' -- Wolves in Sheep's Clothing?

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Remember Mormons, Prop 8 and marriage equality? Mormons were among the big players and funders who rejected same-sex marriage. Not all Mormons are on the wrong side of history. Affirmation is a group of LGBTQ Mormons who work hard to help Latter Day Saints (LDS) leaders to respect all Mormons -- including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer people -- but prejudice dies hard.

The latest LDS tactic is to position church officials as supportive of a law that supports LGBTQ employment and housing rights -- and then demand that religious people be allowed to continue to discriminate. We are not fooled. Having met many Mormons who are so alienated by their own church's approach to LGBTQ rights, I am confident they are not fooled either.


The words of Jesus -- "wolves in sheep's clothing" -- come to mind when a civil rights bill has a sweeping exemption for anyone with "sincerely held" religious beliefs. Free to discriminate, anyone could then say, "I am sorry. We do not serve queer people in this restaurant because our sincere religious beliefs are that you do not deserve to live. In the Bible, it tells us to stone you for lying with a man as you would a woman. It's not personal; it's in the Bible. You better leave."

Is this grandstanding a last-ditch effort by fundamentalists who want to deny basic human rights to LGBTQ people in the face of a landslide for marriage equality? Unfortunately, just when we think religious extremists are breathing their last, they regroup for the next wave of unconstitutional impositions of their religious beliefs.

Frankly, if this was just about Mormons, I wouldn't worry as much. But many conservatives are framing religious liberty as the main argument against LGBT employment rights, against marriage equality, against abortion -- and even against a secular government.

Conservatives who want to impose their religious beliefs in civic space and in the market are exactly the type of people Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he and the other founders of this country prioritized freedom of religion.

Religion and Government have a lot in common -- they both have rules that can be enforced, and they expect their constituents to support their activities. As head of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) with ministries in 40 countries, we would not be able to serve without the generous giving of members. This expectation of tithes and taxes is not insincere by religious leaders, nor gratuitous by political leaders. When we join our resources, we can do great things! Unfortunately, money and power can corrupt both religious leaders and politicians.

History shows us that an enmeshed church and state can create a megalith of power, resources and corruption. Patriotism and religious loyalty become indistinguishable, and Archbishops whisper in the ears of princes, presidents, kings and queens. Suffice it to say, we really don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. The Reformation challenged all of that in the 1500s, and by the 1700's, Jefferson and others would not allow the corrupting influence of a conflated church and state.

Today, there are swaths of conservatives who want to claim the United States as a "Christian Country" created in the image of their own preaching. Many people -- both secular and religious -- are wary as contingents of Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical conservatives form temporary alliances to resist civil rights for LGBT people and justice for women. Be assured that if any one of these groups ever consolidated enough political, religious and economic power to enforce their brand of religion, the wars between these groups would begin in short order, and bleed into every aspect of our country.

Fortunately, so far, we have maintained a balance between freedom of religion and freedom from the imposition of religion.

In the 1990s, many religions came together when government control of religion became too stringent and religions of many persuasions were feeling the pinch. In 1993, this coalition was able to pass The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to establish a strongly articulated restriction on government interference in religion. The state would now be required to show a "compelling reason" to limit religious expression.

Today, religions are asking for waivers from following laws that support equality and civil rights, not because they can demonstrate any harm to themselves, but because they believe their religion is superior to the Constitution.

If there was ever a compelling reason for the state to limit religious exemptions and public performance of "sincerely held religious beliefs," it is equality before the law. Review after review in the courts of our nation have determined that same-gender couples and their families are harmed by not applying the laws equally to all who want to be married and to protect their families -- regardless of the gender of the couple.

We need new criteria today -- religions must show a compelling reason NOT to follow a law. They must show that they cannot possibly accommodate the core tenets of their faith and follow laws that are constitutional. Sincerely held beliefs can be wrong -- even in light of core tenets of a person's faith, let alone constitutional laws. Equality before the law does not infringe on any core religious belief in any religion. All religions teach that others should be treated with kindness and respect.

Matthew's account of Jesus' warning to his followers about wolves in sheep's clothing is contained in the same chapter that begins, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."

Jesus was dealing with the same human nature that is at work today. Too many people want to be judgmental toward others, take away their rights, harm their families, and say God made them do it. This has to stop. Religious liberty is not an excuse to discriminate.