It looked like a stunning reversal: the same church that helped defeat gay marriage in California standing with gay-rights activists on an anti-discrimination law in its own backyard.
On Tuesday night, after a series of clandestine meetings between local gay-rights backers and Mormons in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would support proposed city laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and employment.
The ordinances passed and history was made: It marked the first time the Salt Lake City-based church had supported gay-rights legislation.
The Mormon church — which continues to suffer a backlash over its support last year of Proposition 8, the measure banning gay marriage in California — emphasized that its latest position in no way contradicts its teachings on homosexuality.
But the action is one of the strongest signs yet that even conservative religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage might be willing to support legal protections for gays that fall short of that.
At the same time, the church’s position has angered some of its conservative allies on social issues, prompted questions about whether public relations is its real motivation, and put the church on the spot over how far it will go on similar legislation on the state and federal level.
“This is a very good public relations response that has the additional benefit of actually representing the way the current church leadership thinks,” said Armand Mauss, a retired professor at Washington State University and scholar of Mormonism.
Some of the church’s conservative allies in the gay marriage battles, however, call it a setback. The two new ordinances make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay, bisexual or transgender.
Such legislation robs employers and landlords of their rights and gives legal ammunition to judges sympathetic to gay marriage, said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the conservative Family Research Council.
“It’s disappointing and I’m fearful that it reflects in part a reaction to the attacks they came under after Proposition 8 — an effort to bend over backwards to exhibit tolerance toward homosexuals in some way,” Sprigg said.
Michael Otterson, director of public affairs for the Mormon church, said Wednesday that church leaders were able to support the ordinance because it doesn’t carve out special rights for gays.
Supporting “basic civil values,” Otterson said, does not compromise the church’s religious belief that homosexuality is a sin and that same-sex marriage poses a threat to traditional marriage.
“There are going to be gay advocates who don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough, and people very conservative who think we’ve gone too far,” Otterson said. “The vast majority of people are between those polar extremes and we think that’s going to resonate with people on the basis of fair-mindedness.”
Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, said the Mormon church’s stand on the Salt Lake City ordinances could help alter the debate over gay rights.
“The church deserves credit, but that credit really comes because people have been pushing for it,” Knox said. “It’s not something thing they arrived at on their own and out of the goodness of their hearts.”
The church’s action is the latest sign of a softening among some conservative Christians toward offering some legal protections to gays.
Activists are trying to garner support from evangelicals for a federal employment anti-discrimination law that would cover gays. However, religious reaction was largely negative to a federal hate crimes act protecting homosexuals that President Barack Obama recently signed into law. Several conservative Christian groups argued that preaching against homosexuality could be deemed a hate crime under the legislation.
The Mormon church has not taken a stance on either piece of federal legislation.
Otterson, the church spokesman, said that in the case of the Salt Lake City ordinances, Mormon leaders weighed in because they were responding to a request for feedback on specific legislation.
Asked whether the church would take a stand on similar state or federal legislation, Otterson said: “The church leadership is not inclined to offer free advice where it’s not being requested.”