In the tug of war between religious freedom and LGBT rights, neither side will get everything it wants, two Mormon apostles said Thursday.

"Neither right is an absolute," explained Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former Utah Supreme Court justice. "Each has exceptions."

But neither Oaks nor fellow Mormon apostle D. Todd Christofferson would offer any guidance on how the Utah Legislature should balance the two sometimes-conflicting notions or where to draw the lines defining the exceptions to each interest.

Instead, Oaks said, their mission was to put forward principles and then "encourage the two extremes to talk to each other."

"In applying these principles," Oaks said, "there has got to be give and take in the democratic process within the limits of the law."

Mormon officials "are under no illusion that this is easy," Christofferson said, "but it is certainly worth it."

Oaks said the LDS Church is concerned not only about safeguarding the faith's institutional rights but also the "free exercise of religion by our members."

The challenge, according to Cliff Rosky, board chairman for Equality Utah and a law professor at the University of Utah, is finding a way to carve out the protections the church seems to be seeking without giving individuals carte blanche to discriminate.

Existing discrimination laws already exempt churches and church-owned institutions, and people cannot be fired or denied housing because of their beliefs. To go further would be problematic.

"If the Legislature wants to take this idea of religious liberty," Rosky said, "and twist it and take it even further and say, 'Employers have the religious liberty to fire people and landlords have the religious liberty to evict someone,' it could completely destroy our civil-rights laws."

The result wouldn't be a law that bans discrimination, Rosky said. "You're passing a law legalizing discrimination, and I'm confident that's not what the church has in mind."

The LDS authorities, interviewed on The Salt Lake Tribune's Trib Talk webcast, said they had no plans to back a particular legislative proposal, though they hope their effort at balance will prove persuasive.

"It does get pretty murky pretty quick," Oaks acknowledged. "And fortunately we're not the lawmakers who have to draw the lines."

Oaks and Christofferson were firm on one point: The discrimination bill and the religious-liberty protections should be considered a package deal.

Emphasizing religious freedom over gay rights or vice versa has not been "a strategy for success," Christofferson said. "When combined, they really serve the vast majority of people."

LDS leaders hope Utah can produce laws that balance religious freedom and nondiscrimination protections and become a "model" for other states and the nation. But that's up to lawmakers.

"We have good will and a bully pulpit from which to teach," Oaks said. "That's why we're in the game."

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the Legislature's only openly gay member, said the ultimate protection of religion already is enshrined in the First Amendment. To add other faith-based exemptions for individuals could allow discrimination against all sorts of people, including Mormons.

"This is not a door that would be good for Utah or America," he said. "But I do believe there is a way to protect religious liberties … without going down the road of allowing every 'Bubba' in the country to decide which discrimination laws they're going to follow and which ones they're not."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has said a balance can be struck, although it's unclear what that is.

"That's a discussion the Legislature is still going to go through," he said, "and we'll look to see how [the bills] will be welded together."

New House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said Wednesday that the church's landmark news conference a day earlier — calling for a nondiscrimination bill with religious safeguards — provided valuable context and perspective, but noted the Legislature has to weigh the competing interests.

"Religious freedom is the bedrock of why [we have] a country," he said. "You can't start saying, and I hope we wouldn't start saying, that we so profoundly disagree with someone's religious belief that we can impede it, we can't exercise it."

At the same time, Hughes said, adults in today's society need to take responsibility for their choices. A property manager himself, Hughes said if landlords don't want to rent to gay people, maybe they should find another career.

The LDS Church teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, only acting on it is. And it steadfastly opposes gay marriage.

In 2009, the faith endorsed two Salt Lake City ordinances barring housing and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, marking the first and, thus far, only time it has backed specific, pro-gay-rights legislation.

What about Mormons who support same-sex marriage privately among family and friends or publicly by posting entries on Facebook, marching in pride parades or belonging to gay-friendly organizations such as Affirmation or Mormons Building Bridges? Can they do so without the threat of losing their church membership or temple privileges?

"We have individual members in the church with a variety of different opinions, beliefs and positions on these issues and other issues," Christofferson said. " ... In our view, it doesn't really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders — if that's a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines."

That's very different, he said, than someone who backs a group such as Affirmation.

These issues with individuals are not "resolved at church headquarters," Oaks added, "but require the prayerful consideration of a [local] bishop."

The apostle noted the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has "30,000 bishops [lay pastors] in the world and they have differences. We are constantly trying to teach correct principles ... [but it's difficult] to maintain uniformity."

Top Mormon leaders "do recognize the need for constant training" to prevent local leaders from imposing inappropriate sanctions on members, Christofferson said, "and are committed to that ... so there's greater ... sensitivity."

Trib Talk host Jennifer Napier-Pearce read an email from a mother of a transgender son, who worried about her LDS bishop's reaction to the news.

"Some bishops are awesome and loving and some people get the threats of being excommunicated," the woman wrote. "I think we, as members, need that assurance that we can indeed have our own opinion, support our children and still follow our beliefs."

The church has not had much experience dealing with "the unique problems" of transgender members, Oaks acknowledged. "We have some unfinished business in teaching on that."

Mormon leaders also plan to expand instructions to their lay clergy and outreach to members in dealing with LGBT issues. Christofferson has said, for example, that the LDS Church plans to refresh and amplify the mormonsandgays.org website it unveiled in 2012.

"We definitely do not recommend [heterosexual] marriage as a solution for same-gender attraction; it's not a therapy," Oaks said. "In times past, decades ago, there were some practices to that effect, but we have eradicated them in the church now."

He also strongly condemned parents who would throw a gay child out of their home. "That is not acceptable behavior."

With Tuesday's news conference and Thursday's interview, Christofferson said, LDS leaders want to bring civility to the discussion of competing rights, helping Americans "learn to live together in respectful ways."

They also hope Mormons can learn to "be more understanding and less confrontational," Oaks said, "in how they practice their religion."

pstack@sltrib.com

gehrke@sltrib.com

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks, makes a public statement for religious freedom and nondiscrimination in Salt Lake City Tuesday Jan. 27. He was one of four LDS leaders that called for legislation that protects vital religious freedoms while at the same time supporting protections in housing and employment for LGBT people.