As gay rights gain acceptance, conservatives say they face discrimination

Several recent events point to how some religious conservatives are now feeling embattled for their opposition to gay marriage. They say their views need to be protected.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Elder Dallin Oaks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve Apostles speaks during a news conference at the Conference Center, Tuesday in Salt Lake City. The church sought to strike a middle position on gay rights.

The astonishing speed with which same-sex marriage has swept across the United States – now legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia – has begun to flip the tables on many religious conservatives. More and more, as they seek to maintain the values of their religious commitments, opponents of same-sex marriage are claiming that they are facing discrimination, if not outright persecution.

In a number of recent incidents, public business owners, especially wedding photographers, bakers, and florists, lost their cases after refusing to offer their services for same-sex weddings.

The cases point to a growing unease among some religious groups as public polls and policy show a clear shift toward acceptance of homosexuality. Increasingly finding themselves in the position of the minority fighting against new cultural norms, some opponents have begun to lash out.

This week, in separate events, Catholic, Evangelical, and Mormon leaders – each with theological views that see legal gay marriage as a threat to the foundations of society – highlighted the need to protect religious freedoms to oppose same-sex marriage. They warned of a developing hostile political climate in which their views were being pushed out of the public sphere.

“It is increasingly difficult to affirm that marriage is the union of a man and a woman without being ruled outside the boundaries of reasonable public conversation,” writes a coalition of high-profile conservative Evangelical and Catholic leaders in a major 5,000-word manifesto that will be released next month in First Things magazine.

On Tuesday, leaders of the Mormon Church grabbed headlines when they announced qualified support for certain measures protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in housing and employment.

But the conservative denomination, with nearly 6.4 million members in the US, has long helped spearhead efforts to battle same-sex marriage. And the primary purpose of the Mormon Church’s rare press conference was to emphasize what it sees as growing threats to religious liberty, calling first and foremost for legislation across the United States to protect “vital religious freedoms.”

“Accusations of bigotry toward people simply because they are motivated by their religious faith and conscience have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and public debate,” said Elder Dallin Oaks, one of the Mormon Church’s 12 governing apostles. “When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser.”

Religious conservatives point to the pressured resignation of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, who was forced out after employees and tech workers objected to his support of California’s Proposition 8, which sought to ban same-sex marriage. They point to the tone of those who wanted him out as troubling.

"Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure," said one group urging users to boycott Mozilla’s Firefox browser.

And last year, the California state university system, the largest in the country, “de-recognized” local chapters of the evangelical Christian student group Intervarsity since it would not allow non-Christians or openly gay students to hold leadership positions – a violation of the state-mandated nondiscrimination policy, university officials said.

The coalition of Evangelicals and Catholic leaders, which includes the influential Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Catholic thinkers George Weigel and Robert George, and 50 other conservative religious leaders, called same-sex marriage a kind of “unreality” and a particularly grave threat to society.

“An easy acceptance of divorce damages marriage; widespread cohabitation devalues marriage,” the coalition writes in its statement, “The Two Shall Become One Flesh: Reclaiming Marriage.” “But so-called same-sex marriage is a graver threat, because what is now given the name of marriage in law is a parody of marriage.”

“If we are to remain faithful to the Scriptures and to the unanimous testimony of Christian Tradition,” the statement said, “there can be no compromise on marriage.”

Mormon leaders, however, presented the hope that the deeply personal debates over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, though contrary to the church's teachings, could lead to an outcome in which “millions of people with diverse backgrounds and different views and values will live together in relative harmony for the foreseeable future.”  

“In any democratic society, differences often lead to tensions,” said Sister Neill Marriott, one of the Mormon leaders who spoke about the issue Tuesday. “Such tensions are not to be feared unless they become so extreme that they threaten to tear apart the very fabric of society.”

“While that's happened sometimes in our history,” she continued, “we're at our best as fellow citizens when the push-pull of different viewpoints, freely and thoroughly aired in national debate, lead ultimately to compromise and resolution and we move on as a nation, stronger than before.”

[Correction: This article has been updated to fix the number of states where same-sex marriage is now legal. It is 36, plus the District of Columbia.]

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