LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks on Tuesday likened the post-Proposition 8 backlash against Mormons to the persecution blacks endured during the civil-rights struggle.
Now Oaks faces a backlash himself.
"Were four little Mormon girls blown up in the church at Sunday school? Were there burning crosses planted on local bishops' lawns? Were people lynched and their genitals stuffed in their mouths?" asked University of Utah historian Colleen McDannell. "By comparing these two things, it diminishes the real violence that African-Americans experienced in the '60s, when they were struggling for equal rights. There is no equivalence between the two."
Oaks, in a strongly worded defense of the church's efforts opposing same-sex marriage, told students at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg that Latter-day Saints "must not be deterred or coerced into silence" by advocates for "alleged civil rights."
Last year, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged its followers to donate money and time to pass Prop 8, the successful ballot measure that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to wed in California. Afterward, protests, including several near LDS temples, erupted along with boycotts of business owners who donated to Prop 8 and even some vandalism of LDS meetinghouses.
"In their effect," Oaks said, "they are like the well-known and widely condemned voter-intimidation of blacks in the South that produced corrective federal civil-rights legislation."
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP's Salt Lake branch, said there is "no comparison."
"I don't see where the LDS Church has been denied any of their rights," she said. "What the gay and lesbian communities are fighting for, that is a civil-rights issue."
In an interview posted on the LDS Church's Web site after the speech, Oaks called his analogy a "good one," but acknowledged that intimidation of Mormons in the wake of Prop 8 has not been "as serious as what happened in the South."
In his speech, the LDS apostle, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, cast the anti-Mormon furor as an attack on religious freedom.
"During my lifetime I have seen a significant deterioration in the respect accorded to religion in our public life, and I believe that the vitality of religious freedom is in danger of being weakened accordingly," Oaks said. "Atheists and others would intimidate persons with religious-based points of view from influencing or making the laws of their state or nation."
Judeo-Christian scriptures established the marriage of a man and a woman thousands of years ago, he said, and those who would change this ancient order "should not be allowed to pretend that those who defend the ancient order are trampling on civil rights."
Religious-freedom advocates said the speech contained sound points, but gay-rights supporters criticized Oaks for dismissing their cause.
Will Carlson, public-policy manager for Equality Utah, called legal protections for gay and transgender people, including anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws, "human rights."
"The right to earn a living, the right to stay in your home, the right to be free from violence, these are the priorities of the equal-rights movement," he said. "Even in the pursuit of marriage equality, it's about the legal protections that come with a marriage license. Just as the LDS faithful have a fundamental right to get married according to the dictates of their conscience, all Americans should have that right."
Carlson said his gay-rights group supports "religious liberty" and condemns "any vandalism or violence against any people."
Peter Danzig, a former Mormon and a spokesman for Foundation for Reconciliation, which aims to foster understanding between Latter-day Saints and the gay community, said he agrees on the importance of religious freedom. But he found it "astonishing" that Oaks failed to mention faiths that "honor" gay marriage. He also disagreed with Oaks' characterization of gay-rights advocates as largely atheists.
"Many activists are deeply religious people," he said.
Though they did not hear or read Oaks' speech, several religious-freedom advocates concurred with his description of the growing tensions between civil rights and religious freedom.
"He's not wrong about that," said University of Utah President Michael Young, who has studied religious-liberty questions across the globe.
Suppose the U.S. government determines that discrimination against gays in any form violates the country's basic social policies.
"For the most part, churches would have no trouble, but the devil's in the details," Young said. "If the law required full participation of gays in all aspects of religious life, including clergy ordination, that obviously would present a problem for Catholics, many Protestants and Mormons."
Douglas Laycock, a religious-liberty expert at the University of Michigan Law School, said he is not aware of all the Prop 8 fallout.
"I know there were some bad incidents of people being threatened," Laycock said. "To the extent that that kind of thing went on, it shouldn't have. It does intimidate the exercise of free-speech rights."
America's free-speech clause "is pretty robust, but we have had censorship of free speech on same-sex issues in public schools and in colleges and universities," said Laycock, editor of the 2008 volume, Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts .
U.S. courts have not yet treated as unconstitutional sermons calling homosexual sex a sin, he said. "But Canada and Sweden have, so it's not unimaginable."
Church and blacks
The LDS Church has drawn fire in the past for its racial views.
Until 1978, church policy prevented black members of African descent from marrying in LDS temples or holding the church's all-male priesthood.
Former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson was known in the 1950s and '60s for referring to the "so-called civil-rights movement" as a communist plot, said American history scholar D. Michael Quinn, a gay former Mormon.
Quinn heard echoes of that in Oaks' reference Tuesday to "alleged civil rights" for gay men and lesbians.
"It's demeaning millions of people with a little catchphrase," he said, "demeaning their legitimate aspirations for civil rights."