Jamie Belnap: Hiding discrimination behind religious doctrine is not new for the LDS Church

Church opposition to the Equality Act used God as an excuse for discrimination.

(Tribune File Photo) Supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community hold up signs during a protest over recent remarks by LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer that same-sex attraction is "impure and "unnatural," in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010.

In one heart-stopping minute of the congressional debate over the Equality Act, U.S. Rep. Al Green delivered a moving speech I haven’t quit thinking about since.

“You used God to segregate me in schools,” Green said. “You used God to put me in the back of the bus. Have you no shame?…This is not about God, it’s about men who choose to discriminate against other people because they have the power to do so.”

Two days later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints announced its opposition to the Equality Act, a law that would extend federal civil rights protections to LGBTQ people. Instead, they threw their weight behind the Fairness for All Act, sponsored by Utah’s U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart. This alternative would provide federal LGBTQ anti-discrimination protections in public spaces, but would also expand protections of religious freedom to churches and private businesses at the same time.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Lauded as the ultimate compromise in which everyone wins, even Gov. Spencer Cox called the Fairness for All Act “the type of common sense solution that Utah does best.”

To which I hear the words of Al Green bouncing around inside my head, “Have you no shame?”

Make no mistake, protections for religious freedom is a euphemism for exemption from the financial and legal consequences of discrimination. LGBTQ protections would be tolerated so far as they do not extend to chapels, temples and businesses.

By all accounts, the Mormon church is sitting on a slush fund of more than $100 billion. Adding to this deep well of financial power, the extent of its political influence cannot be overstated. Utah residents well understand that when the church makes a statement about a local political or social issue, it’s all but decided. Which raises the question: At what point does a church have so much social, political and financial capital that they become more than just a religion?

In 2018, researchers from the University of Georgia studied the impact of orthodox religious practice on LGBTQ people. The test group? LGBTQ Mormons. And get this: Of the almost 300 Mormon and ex-Mormon participants, a shocking 89% “likely met criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis related to their religious experiences.” PTSD: we know it as the disorder of war veterans and survivors of abuse, violence, and, well, trauma.

Additionally, according to research from the Family Acceptance Project, LGBTQ youth who do not feel accepted by their families and communities are far more likely to struggle with poor mental health, addiction, severe depression and suicide. Since religion so strongly influences a family’s response to their LGBTQ child, there is little question that the unintentional impacts of religious practices on LGBTQ people can be devastating.

Hiding discrimination behind religious doctrine is not new for the church. For most of church history, members were taught that Black people were less valiant in the pre-existence and they, too, were banned from temples until 1978. Interracial dating and marriage was discouraged by church leadership until only the most recent decades, and Brigham Young himself stated that punishment for the practice should be death for the couple and their resulting children.

The LGBTQ Mormon experience is discriminatory by definition. If they engage in relationships with those they are biologically inclined to love, they cannot be members in good standing or enter the temples of the church. The possibility of excommunication is real, and their very identities are dismissed as an inclination to be subverted or, worse yet, life’s greatest trial.

It’s been argued that passage of the Equality Act could devastate religious schools like Brigham Young University. But when BYU’s historical treatment of LGBTQ students is egregious at best, why should we protect the institution at the expense of its students?

Gay students were banned from the school altogether in the 60s, and LGBTQ students in the 1970s were subjected to electronic surveillance, room searches, expulsion, and worst of all, electro-shock therapy in campus basement laboratories.

This week, on the one-year anniversary of BYUs Honor Code controversy, we have been reminded that campus discrimination is alive and well. LGBTQ students still may not participate in same-sex relationships for fear of expulsion, even if they maintain the same abstinence standards as their straight counterparts, so they continue to hide in the shadows.

When a grossly wealthy institution with seemingly bottomless political power and influence benefits from tax-exempt status, shouldn’t anti-discrimination laws apply to them too?

It’s time to be honest about what the Fairness for All Act really is — an attempt for churches to hide harmful practices behind religious protections. It certainly is not “fair for all,” specifically the 89% of LGBTQ Mormons still bandaging the blistering wounds of spiritual abuse.

Have we no shame?

Jamie Belnap

Jamie Belnap is a high school counselor in Salt Lake City. She lives in the Heber Valley with her husband and four children.