SALT LAKE CITY – The Mormon Church staked a deeper claim to middle ground in American society on Tuesday, advocating for compromises between protecting religious liberties and prohibiting discrimination, and criticizing Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for refusing to license gay marriages.
"We may have cultural differences, but we should not have 'culture wars,'" Mormon leader Dallin H. Oaks declared.
"On the big issues ... both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory," he said. "For example, religionists should not seek a veto over all non-discrimination laws that offend their religion, and the proponents of non-discrimination should not seek a veto over all assertions of religious freedom."
The speech marked another landmark moment in the conservative religion's transformation from a faith that frowned on gays and lesbians to one becoming more welcoming and compassionate, albeit in small steps that may seem nominal to outsiders.
As with the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis, the conservative Mormons are trying to assert a softer position in society, while holding firm inside the church to its own doctrines against gay marriage and homosexual activity.
The Mormons chose Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that guides The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to give the speech, the most detailed yet reflecting the new approach to what Mormons call "same-gendered attraction." He brings credibility as a former Utah Supreme Court judge who also once served as a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren on the U.S. Supreme Court, church officials said.
The discourse was delivered to a closed gathering of judges and clergy in Sacramento, California. A copy of the prepared remarks was provided to The Associated Press.
Oaks declared himself devoted to both church doctrine and the laws of a democratic society. But when conflicts between them arise and are decided, citizens of a democracy must follow court rulings, he said.
"Government officials must not apply these duties selectively according to their personal preferences — whatever their source," Oaks said. "A county clerk's recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle."
Oaks didn't call out Davis by name, but his reference was clear, and confirmed by church officials.
Davis' attorney Mat Staver, fired back at the Mormon Church. He said in an emailed statement that "any attempt to punish a person for the exercise of conscience is sinful."
"Kim Davis has a right to represent her county as an elected official without violating her deeply held religious convictions," Staver said. "Of all religious denominations the Mormon Church should understand the importance of protecting religious freedom. How sad the church officials have forgotten their history and the importance of protecting conscientious objectors."
The "fairness for all" approach now advocated by the Mormons is essential to protecting religious liberties in an open society where different religions co-exist, Oaks asserted. This question isn't academic, but personal, he added: His great-grandfather served time in a territorial prison for breaking a federal law intended to punish him for his religious beliefs, and his wife's great-great-grandfather was murdered by an anti-Mormon mob.
"It is better to try to live with an unjust law than to contribute to the anarchy that a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln anticipated when he declared, 'There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law,'" Oaks said.
Staver, Davis' attorney and founder of the Liberty Counsel, scoffed at the approach. "It may sound nice, but it ends up not pleasing anyone. You need to stand on principle," Staver said.
Davis, an elected Democrat who switched to the Republican Party after spending five days in jail, has been embraced as a hero to many conservative Christians who see her actions as a litmus test for religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture. But other religious opponents of gay marriage are divided about whether her approach helps or hurts the cause for religious liberty.
After the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether in Rowan County, Kentucky rather than comply with rulings she said violate her personal religious beliefs. She was released from jail after members of her staff agreed to comply with a federal judge's order to issue licenses to all legally eligible couples in her stead. The deputy clerks removed her name from the forms.
Once she was released, she further altered the forms to declare they were being issued under a federal court order.
The American Civil Liberties Union now wants U.S. District Judge David Bunning to order Davis and her employees to reissue the licenses without alterations, and to fine her or appoint someone to replace her for this purpose if she continues to refuse. The judge has yet to rule.
Davis declared that her brief private meeting with Pope Francis in Washington "kind of validates everything" about her objections to gay marriage, but the Vatican quickly made clear that the pope intended no such endorsement. The Mormon leader's speech represents another leading denomination distancing itself from her actions.
The Salt Lake City-based church has sought to clarify its role in society after earning international notoriety for encouraging its members to campaign and volunteer for Proposition 8, a 2008 measure, later found unconstitutional, that sought to ban gay marriage in California. A backlash included vandalism of church buildings, protest marches and demonstrations outside Mormon temples nationwide.
Mormon leaders have urged Latter-day Saints to be more loving and respectful since then, even appealing to gay and lesbian Mormons to stay in the church.
While painful, the Proposition 8 experience probably pushed the religion forward on LGBT issues by forcing necessary conversations, said John Gustav-Wrathall, a former member of the Mormon church who is gay.
Oaks' speech wasn't perfect, but the balance and moderate tone will serve as another push to drive compassion among Latter-day Saints toward LGBT people, Gustav-Wrathall said.
The church shift had immediate political consequences after Mormon leaders made a national appeal for a "balanced approach" in the clash between gay rights and religious freedom in January. With church support, Utah passed a state law that protects gay and transgender people from housing and employment discrimination, while also protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
In another balancing act, the church decided to maintain its longtime affiliation with the Boy Scouts this summer, despite the Scouts' decision to end its ban on gay troop leaders.
Some gays like Gustav-Wrathall who left the church or were forced out of Mormon society say they are being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships. But Mormon doctrine still leaves them in a precarious position: To be a full participant in the religion, they must refrain from acting on homosexual desires.
And some comments from church leaders still rankle the LGBT community. That was the case in April when now-deceased leader L. Tom Perry urged Mormons to let their values "be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established."
Spencer Clark, the executive director of Mormons for Equality, was complimentary of most of Oaks' speech but took exception to the point that everybody should get something when laws are made. His group advocates for full equality for LGBT people.
"Making sure that segregationists 'got something' was rightfully not the goal of the civil rights movement," Clark said. "Neither should the LGBT rights movement settle for less than full equal protection under the law."