A prominent Mormon leader took a somewhat unexpected position on Tuesday: He said Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was in the wrong when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs.
Public officials "take an oath to support the constitution and laws of their jurisdiction," Mormon leader Dallin Oaks said, speaking on behalf of the church, according to the Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein. "That oath does not leave them free to use their official position to further their personal beliefs — religious or otherwise — to override the law."
Davis came under criticism over the past several months for stopping the Rowan County Clerk's Office from issuing any marriage licenses, specifically because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage. As I explained before, religious freedom legal experts say that individual officials — like Davis — can have their sincere religious beliefs accommodated by, for example, having someone else in the office issue marriage licenses. But Davis went a step further, demanding that her entire office stop issuing the licenses. So a court jailed her until she finally agreed to step aside and let the rest of her office conduct its legal duty.
But some critics of Davis said she shouldn't be accommodated in any way, arguing that as a public official, Davis should be required to carry out her full legal duties while she's on the taxpayers' payroll. And since she agreed to uphold Kentucky laws when she took office, critics said she's obligated to issue licenses to same-sex couples.
Despite its history as a strong advocate for religious freedom, the Mormon Church seems to agree with the critics' view. But this isn't a totally surprising view from the church, which has been a reasonable arbiter between religious freedom and LGBTQ rights battles over the past year.
The Mormon Church has been willing to compromise on LGBTQ issues
Although religious freedom advocates are often painted as monolithic, and although the Mormon Church is often viewed as one of the staunchest religious freedom advocates, the church has actually taken a softer approach toward LGBTQ issues in the past year. As Boorstein wrote in the Post, the church has made an effort to not be seen as part of divisive culture wars.
The church, for instance, supported and played a crucial role in the passage of a Utah civil rights law that prohibited discrimination against people in the workplace and housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. This made Utah the only deep red state in the country to legally prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Some LGBTQ advocates criticized the Utah law because it has some of the widest religious exemptions of any nondiscrimination law in the country. But as Robin Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois who helped write Utah's nondiscrimination law, previously told me, the choice was between Utah having no nondiscrimination law and having a law with religious exemptions. The compromise, then, was the only politically realistic way to protect LGBTQ people's civil rights in a very conservative state.
"The bigger problem is that if you convince people that giving gay folks rights is going to somehow encroach on religion," Wilson said, "it's going to be harder to change that legislative map in the US."
It's this spirit of compromise that the Mormon Church seems to want: Maintain some protections for people with sincere religious objections, but respect the law and other people's rights, too.
But in the Kim Davis case, even the Mormon Church seems to think that the Kentucky clerk went too far.