It is possible to be cynical or begrudging in reacting to the LDS Church's unprecedented public decision to support civic protections against discrimination in employment and housing with respect to homosexuals in Salt Lake City. I think that is a temptation to be resisted.

What the LDS church has done in Utah is an immensely important and positive step and places the SLCGeorgeFrey:Getty Mormon church in a far more positive and pro-gay position than any other religious group broadly allied with the Christianist right. They have made a distinction - and it is an admirable, intellectually honest distinction - between respecting the equal rights of other citizens in core civil respects, while insisting - with total justification - on the integrity of one's own religious doctrines, and on a religious institution's right to discriminate in any way with respect to its own rites and traditions.

I believe that there are forces of discrimination and bigotry within the Mormon church - and they have recently been ascendant. But that is true of most churches and most institutions. And what I have long observed among Mormons - unlike some other denominations - is also an American decency that tends to win out in the end. I've never met a nasty Mormon. They put many Christians to shame in their practice of their faith and the civility and sincerity with which they live their lives. And this decision in Salt Lake City - not an easy or inevitable one - to make a clear distinction between civil marriage and other civil protections is one worthy of respect.

I do not agree with it. I see no reason why civil marriage for non-Mormons should be banned because Mormons find it anathema to their doctrines - just as I see no reason why civil divorce should be banned because it violates the Catholic church's doctrines. But I can respect that position because I can respect the sincerity of that religious belief and see in this stance a genuine attempt to reach out and respect the rights of gay citizens in certain basic respects. Gays should and must reciprocate.

For this is not something that many other churches, including my own, have been able or prepared to do. I wish, of course, that Michael Otterson, who is also a decent and sincere man, had not framed the position in such a defensive way:

"The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

That's a lamentably inflammatory way to describe gay citizens' genuine attempt to seek equality in civil marriage - which we certainly don't see as "violence" in any way at all. But the extremity of that quote may well have been necessary to avoid a backlash among conservative Mormons. And I would much rather focus on the positive gesture than the back-handed swipe that accompanied it.

The other thing to say about this is that it speaks very highly of the strategy of Equality Utah, the state's main gay group, who decided to call the LDS bluff when the church said it was merely opposed to civil marriage - and not other protections for gay and lesbian citizens. Equality Utah immediately tried to get the church to endorse civil unions. That was a non-starter, but in response, we have this support for an anti-discrimination ordinance. Treating religious groups as interlocutors to be engaged, rather than as enemies to be attacked, has not been successful in most places. I did my best with the Catholic hierarchy in the 1990s and got little but contempt or terrified silence in response. Imagine the impact if the Pope came out and explicitly endorsed anti-discrimination laws for gay and lesbian people and used those words and expressed the kind of respect the Mormons just have. It would do a huge amount of good - for gay people and for the church. This Pope cannot do that; but the Mormons just did. More power to the Mormons.

For this degree of respect - even if it is not fully what I want or what gays truly deserve - we should reciprocate with respect as well. This is a moment of genuine dialogue and civil compromise. And it was accomplished in Salt Lake City among gay and straight Mormons and gay and straight non-Mormons in a way that other Christians in other places have been unable to replicate.

Leadership comes in the unlikeliest places. And when it does, we should thank God and be glad.

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