Mormon Church backs gay rights legislation in Utah
For the first time historically, the Mormon Church in Utah is backing legislation to protect the rights of gays.
After their heavy funding of Proposition 8 in the state of California, this is viewed as an historic moment.
Traditionally, the Mormon church has asked its gay members to remain celibate. But it insists its backing of fair housing and employment for gays and lesbians does no "violence" to traditional order. The Mormon church rarely enters into the political sphere; when it does, the public takes notice.
Gays and lesbians have been holding conferences with Mormon leaders to try and find some common ground.
The Mormon church for the first time has announced its support of gay rights legislation, an endorsement that helped gain unanimous approval for Salt Lake city laws banning discrimination against gays in housing and employment.
The Utah-based church's support ahead of Tuesday night's vote came despite its steadfast opposition to gay marriage, reflected in the high-profile role it played last year in California's Proposition 8 ballot measure that barred such unions.
"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage," Michael Otterson, the director of public affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said.
Passage made Salt Lake City the first Utah community to prohibit bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the two new ordinances, it is illegal to fire someone from their job or evict someone from their residence because they are lesbian, bisexual, gay or transgender.
Utah lawmakers tend to quickly fall in line when the influential church makes a rare foray into legislative politics. So Tuesday's action could have broad reaching effects in this highly conservative state where more than 80 percent of lawmakers and the governor are church members.
"What happened here tonight I do believe is a historic event," said Brandie Balken, director of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Utah. "I think it establishes that we can stand together on common ground that we don't have to agree on everything, but there are lot of things that we can work on and be allies."
But the church has pointed out an inherent dispute it has with the gay lifestyle. Mormonism considers traditional marriages central to God's plan. Gays are welcome in church, but must remain celibate to retain church callings and full membership.
It's strong support for Proposition 8 in California last year drew a sharp reaction from gay rights supporters nationwide, with many protesting outside temples that singled out Mormons as the key culprits in restricting the rights of gay couples.
Since then, however, Utah's gay community has sought to engage church leaders in quiet conversations to help foster better understanding, said Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center.
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