Gay rights group calls for LDS Church support

The Associated Press/December 18, 2008

A national civil rights group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community has launched a national letter writing and e-mail campaign calling on the Mormon church to publicly support equality legislation in Utah.

The two-step lobbying effort by the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign began Dec. 12 with a letter from HRC President Joe Solmonese to Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That was followed this week with an e-mail from HRC board member and Utahn Bruce Bastian asking the 750,000-plus HRC members to contact the church.

In his letter, Solmonese said Monson can lend "credibility and force" to a November church statement that it does not oppose civil unions or some nonmarriage legal rights for same sex-couples.

"While we will always be in opposing camps regarding marriage equality under the law, I ask that you now join our community in supporting legislative change in Utah that offers real protections to LGBT citizens and families," Solmonese wrote.

Five bills that propose equal treatment or establish legal protections for the LGBT community are expected to come before the Utah Legislature for consideration during the session that begins in January.

Three of the bills address equity in employment, housing, hospitalization, medical care or probate rights. A fourth would establish a domestic partner registry and a fifth would repeal part of a constitutional amendment that defines marriage.

The church declined comment when the bill proposals were announced last month by the gay rights organization Equality Utah.

In an e-mail Thursday, church spokeswoman Kim Farah also declined to comment on the HRC letter.

Utah has banned gay marriage in its constitution and previous attempts to pass equality legislation have failed. The Mormon church, which teaches that homosexual sex is a sin, rarely directly involves itself in state politics, but when it does, lawmakers listen. Between 80 and 90 percent of legislators are members of the church.

Equality Utah director Mike Thompson said he is optimistic that church leaders will support the proposed bills.

"We know we can't lose ground, the church has already said it does not oppose the list of rights we are pursuing," he said. "We would like to think a statement of 'do not object to' is very close to support."

The appeal to Monson comes as the Mormon church is dealing with the backlash of its involvement in Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative passed by voters in November that bans gay marriage. Mormons were enthusiastic volunteers and generous donors to the 'Yes on 8' campaign.

Since the vote, Mormon church buildings have been picketed or targeted for vandalism and the church has been denounced by many as bigoted.

Church leaders rejected the label in a postelection day statement posted on its Web site, saying it "does not object to rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."

If that's true, then the church should have no problem backing the Utah legislation, Solmonese said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"The question would really be was [the church's statement] predicated on a measure of good will or by the negative public relations in the aftermath of Proposition 8?" he said. "This is a chance for them to tell us."

Bastian, a co-founder of the WordPerfect software company, is an openly gay former Mormon who donated $1 million to the campaign against Proposition 8. Typically content to remain on the sidelines, Bastian said the church's activism that he saw as helping to wipe away the legal rights of gay Californians was so upsetting that he needed to speak out.

"Separate is never equal. We've proved that time and time again in this country," he said. "I'm a big funder of HRC. This time I want to be more, I want to be a voice."

HRC has not sent letters to other faith organizations involved in the Proposition 8 campaign.

A national advocacy group, HRC works with business, government and faith organization on education and policy issues around LGBT equality and often weighs in on state and local issues.

"The rights of LGBT people in Utah have an impact on all of us," Solmonese said. "So it's our responsibility as a movement to look outside our own community. We have a responsibility to be there and advocate for our brothers and sisters."

As of Thursday morning, tracking by HRC staff showed nearly 26,000 members had used a link on the organization Web site to send a letter to Monson through several public e-mail addresses listed for the church, HRC spokesman Trevor Thomas said. The group is able to track the number because the e-mails are essentially being sent from HRC's server, he said.

The AP cannot independently verify HRC's claims, but has confirmed that some church employees have received e-mails from HRC members.

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