Transcript of January 2015 Trib Talk with Elders Oaks and Christofferson

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Screenshot from interview

In the process of compiling a somewhat-comprehensive list of official LDS statements on LGBT issues, I have come across a few recordings for which I could not find full transcripts. One of those is the Trib Talk from 29 January 2015, between the Salt Lake Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce and Elders Oaks and Christofferson, discussing the Church’s “Fairness for All” news conference from two days prior. Here is my transcript of the interview.

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(NP = Napier-Pearce, O = Oaks, C = Christofferson)

NP: Welcome to Trib Talk. I’m Jennifer Napier-Pearce with the Salt Lake Tribune. Four top leaders at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints delivered a strong message on Tuesday, calling on its local state and federal officials to pass laws that, number one, protect gays and lesbians from discrimination while, number two, also ensuring one’s right to worship. It’s a rare move for the global faith. Joining me to talk about their legislative push and the Church’s stance on LGBT issues, from the Church Office Building, Elder D. Todd Christofferson is with me, also Elder Dallin H. Oaks who is struggling with a cold. They are two members of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being here. I’m very grateful for your time today.

C: Thank you.

O: It’s a pleasure.

NP: Just to be clear for our viewers, today’s conversation will be limited to religious freedom and gay rights issues. Certainly, there are many other pressing issues for Mormons worldwide. Hopefully we’ll have a future opportunity to speak with LDS officials on those topics. But for now you can join us with your questions about anti-discrimination legislation and religious freedom bills. You can send those with the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+, put them on the page right here (sltrib.com) or text to that number on the screen (801-609-8059). We’ve already had overwhelming response from our audience. We’ll get to some of those questions a bit later in the program.

Gentlemen, you’re calling for a balanced approach between religious and gay rights. Can you describe what you think that balanced approach looks like. Elder Oaks?

O: A balanced approach will take account of the fact that neither nondiscrimination nor religious freedom is an absolute. Each one of them has exceptions. So when people advocating nondiscrimination come forward, they need to know that they don’t get everything they want, and the same is true of religious freedom. We are trying to teach basic principles, and then the lawmakers will work through the details.

C: Much the discussion to this point in different places, it seems like it’s been people talking past each other and based on the sense that it’s a zero-sum game. Either I win or they win, but we can’t both win. An our hope is that we can talk more of a balance and, as Elder Oaks says, not talk in absolutes but in fairness.

NP: In your remarks you call for protecting key religious rights. What do you mean by “key” religious rights?

O: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. Key religious rights are not limited to worshiping or believing. They include acting on the principles of one’s religion.

C: They involve things like teaching and obviously, as he says, the practice, you know, the day-to-day practice of the values and beliefs.

NP: Why did you feel the need to connect these these two issues together? Could you, as a Church, have just issued a statement in support nondiscrimination legislation, period? Why did you decide it to to link these together?

O: It’s our position that they should not be seen separately because they overlap and, to some extent, conflict with one another. So it is not helpful to say that we support nondiscrimination legislation independent of religious freedom, and it’s not helpful to the overall issue to say we support religious freedom independent of nondiscrimination. We have to talk about both of them at the same time.

NP: Please, Elder Christofferson?

C: Where it’s been, to this point anyway, talked about as one or the other and they haven’t been linked, it hasn’t been a very successful approach. Past experience is that they tend to fail. Either legislation is proposed strictly on relgious freedom matters or on nondiscrimination matters. Once in a while something will be adopted, but for the most part it’s not a strategy for success, either way. When they are combined, I think we we really serve the people, the vast majority of the people.

NP: You dabbled in a couple of hypotheticals in your statements. I’m going to throw couple more out there. What of a Mormon owner of a bed and breakfast who does not want a gay couple to stay in that home? What about a baptist restaurant owner who refuses to serve a lesbian couple? Where where do you draw the lines? Because it seems that this can get pretty murky pretty quick.

O: It does get pretty murky pretty quick, and fortunately we’re not lawmakers who have to draw those lines. We’ll teach general principles and encourage the two extremes to talk to one another. But in applying these principles to the kind of circumstances you cite, it’s got to be the give-and-take of the democratic process, within the limits of the law of course, and those are the kinds of questions we won’t speak to because we’re not the lawmakers. We teach the principles.

C: It will take a lot of discussion. We’re under no illusions that this is easy. We’re talking about something that’s really hard work, but certainly worth it, and certainly better than not trying.

NP: What’s the motivation behind this statement? Are you mostly concerned about religious rights for the Church as an entity, ensuring exemptions for BYU housing for example? Or are you more concerned with protecting the individuals practicing the religion? Your response?

O: We’re concerned with both. We’re concerned with the free exercise of religion by our members, and we’re also concerned with the Church as an institution, the sponsor of different organizations such as BYU.

NP: Anything to add, Elder Christofferson?

C: No, that’s it. They’re both of very significant importance to us. It’s not just institutions. It’s people and where they live.

NP: [Aside] Speaking with Elder Dallin Oaks and Elder Todd Christofferson. They’re discussing the LDS Church support for legislation that protects both religious freedom and LGBT rights. You can send your comments to the hashtag #TribTalk or put them online here at sltrib.com. Again, we’ve received many more questions than time is going to allow, so I’m going to select a few as a representative sample. I hope that’s okay with you gentlemen.

I want to start with the some legal questions, and maybe this is another clarifying question. An anonymous text came in: “Would the protection extend to the evangelical restauranteur who refuses to serve Mormon missionaries?” Again, you talk about how the details are going to have to be hashed out in the democratic process, but often the devil is in the details.

O: Of course, we realize that. We’re talking about principles that should apply to all citizens and to all persons of whatever religious persuasion or gender. So you put a very valuable hypothetical. It’s just as valuable as hypotheticals involving other groups. But we won’t get into that detail.

NP: Fair enough. Many questioners want some clarity from you on what public advocacy means. I’m just going to give you a sample.

Here’s E.C. writing in an email: “As a believing, active Mormon who also strongly believes in gay rights, it’s unclear whether I can belong to an advocacy group, march in a parade, participate in a public action with groups like Affirmation or Mormons Building Bridges, or even post to my Facebook wall about these issues without facing discipline.”

A related question on Twitter from Jen: “If I support my gay son by marching in a parade, will I lose my temple recommend or be excommunicated?”

And finally another, Jason Bryant: “I’m an active member in good standing. I want to understand whether publicly supporting gay marriage or groups like Ordain Women could cause me to lose my temple recommend. If I privately believe in these ideas, would I still be temple worthy and, if so, then why would the act of public expression make me unworthy if a privately held belief does not? What is the difference between a belief and its expression?”

There’s sort of a lot packed in there, but obviously a lot of people care about this issue.

O: Surely.

C: A heavy question. We have members, individual members, in the Church with a variety of different opinions and beliefs and positions on on these issues and other issues. You can reflect back on the Equal Rights Amendment years ago. This isn’t the first of that kind of thing where we might have different feelings or different positions. It doesn’t, in our view, become a problem unless someone is out attacking the Church and its leaders, and if that’s a deliberate and persistent effort, and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the Church or away from its teachings and doctrines. That’s very different, for us, than someone who feels one way or another on a political stance or a particular action, to support a group, Affirmation or any others that you named. These these are things that, maybe there’s fine lines here and there, but by and large, they’re two separate things.

O: One of the things that needs to be pointed out–and I apologize for my voice. I guess all of us have been in a position when we’ve lost our voice at an inconvenient time–one of the things that needs to be pointed out is that the questions you asked are not resolved at Church Headquarters. They are resolved by prayerful consideration of a bishop who’s been taught the principles of love and the limits that apply. And I find it quite significant that, despite all the worry along the lines that you’ve mentioned, I haven’t heard of a discipline case, and I’m sure if there were one out there, it would be reported by you and your colleagues and those who are posing questions to us.

C: But it is an issue of judgment, you know, and they’re in a position, the local leadership, to really weigh what’s going on. We can pose and we can parse words and all the rest, but they’re in a position to understand what’s really in a person’s heart and where they’re coming from.

NP: This sort of dovetails. A lot of questions about that–local leadership and the discretion that they have. Here’s one from Tina Marie Off: “I have a transgender son who came out was about a year ago, but I just told my bishop two Sundays ago. I hate having to fear what retaliation I might have for supporting him. Some bishops are awesome and loving, and some people get the threats of being excommunicated. I think we as members need that assurance, that we can indeed have our own opinion, support our children, and still follow our beliefs.”

A related Facebook post from Susie Hollingsworth Bradshaw: “Why does one bishop allow full participation in church activities, including callings, to an openly gay member, but another Bishop excommunicates a member who is also openly gay and wishes for full participation. There’s too much discrepancy between congregations on this issue in the Church.”

Thoughts? Obviously you support local leadership and them having some latitude, but is there a need for more direction from Church Headquarters?

O: I believe there is. But I would like to say first that we do not concede the representation in that question. We do concede that we have about thirty thousand bishops in the world, and there are differences, and we are constantly trying to teach correct principles. And where someone gets outside what is permissible, there’s an appeal process, and that is a real appeal process. We know of cases that have been reversed on appeal. So we do our best in a Church with thirty thousand wards and branches, to maintain uniformity and also the individual discretion, under the power of inspiration, that we give to our bishops and branch presidents.

C: I think those are two things there that bear emphasis. One is the mantle that a bishop has and his spiritual gifts that come with that are very real. And secondly, we do recognize the need for constant training and sharing, and we’re committed to that. We’re committed to that ongoing. And it’s something we have have done and will continue to do just so that there’s, as you say, a greater uniformity. But it’s with a sensitivity so that all understand the general principles that underlie what judgments have to be made.

O: Also, this question concerns transgender, and I think we need to acknowledge that, while we have been acquainted with with lesbians and homosexuals for some time, being acquainted with the unique problems of a transgender situation is something we have not had so much experience with, and we have some unfinished business in teaching on that.

C: Yeah.

NP: A few questions–thank you again for indulging these questions, because I think there are a lot of sincere questions out there. A few questions… [broken connection] “…to participate in temple worship, remain celibate for life or seek a heterosexual marriage. However, the professional psychological world would suggest that either of these solutions is a formula for mental and emotional problems such as depression and anxiety, and even suicide.”

Related, Alice Roberts on Twitter: “Will the updated Mormonsandgays.org website include more practical direction for families with gay kids to stem the tide suicides?”

And one last related one from Inside Gay Mormon on Twitter: “Will you encourage local wards to hold a fifth sunday lesson on Mormons and gays?

So I guess there’s a thirst for some statement out there about how the Church is treating its gay and lesbian members and how it’s teaching about self-worth for these particular members. What do you say gentlemen?

C: We cut off a little bit in the course of that question, but I think we’ve got the gist of it. We are committed to expanding, I guess you could say, both the instruction and the orientation that we give to members and we give to leaders. You mentioned one thing, or the questioner did, about families specifically. We do see this as something that’s not just an individual thing. It’s a family matter, and that’s important in our view, that we do more in helping family relationships and helping the families, as well as the individuals, deal with issues and how to help them stay close to the Church and in the Church, and find some some solace and help and opportunity there for spiritual development–all the other things that we would hope for for anyone, of course. But it is much more than just focus on an individual. It does have to be the family and the ward family. And more things can be done and we’re looking that way.

NP: What about to Blake’s concern that there really only are two options? If you are faithful latter-day saint and you’re gay, you either, one, stay celibate for life, or you enter a heterosexual marriage which psychologist have said can result and depression, anxiety and suicide.

O: We definitely do not recommend marriage as a solution for same-gender feelings.

C: It’s not a therapy.

O: No, it’s not a therapy. In times past, decades ago, there were some practices to that effect. We have eradicated them in the Church now. The dilemma that you pose is a doctrinal dilemma, not a policy dilemma. We’re committed to the Law of Chastity. We’re committed to the kind of marriage that God has revealed that has been in effect for thousands of years. And while we recognize that that puts some of our well-loved have brothers and sisters in a very difficult position, that position is quite comparable to the position of someone who has not yet found a marriage partner or may have some physical difficulties, or emotional or economic difficulties, that prevent them from marriage. It’s not unique to be chaste for life.

NP: [Aside] Again, if you have questions, comments for Elder Christofferson or Elder Oaks, please send them to the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+ or put them right here on sltrib.com.

You went public with your nondiscrimination endorsement and the religious freedom statement a couple days ago. It immediately stirred up the public square, and frankly you have been criticized for asking for legal protections for religious people to discriminate. I want to give you an opportunity to respond to that particular criticism.

C: Can I see two things in that regard? Calling it an attempt to legitimize discrimination really is a misrepresentation that tries to avoid the dialogue that needs to take place. It’s just an easy way of avoiding discussing these things and sorting them out. The other thing is we did anticipate the kind of reaction that has come back. Much of it has been very positive. I’m really pleased we’ve seen so many voices in so many places saying this merits consideration and it is a way we can follow. There are voices, and we’ve heard them, on each end, if you could say it that way, that say, “You’re not going far enough,” and from the other side, “You’re going too far.” But frankly I think that makes our point, that we do need to focus on the middle ground, on the reasonable balance.

O: It does make the point, and when I heard that we were accused of trying to use religious freedom to eliminate nondiscrimination laws, I thought to myself, “Well, that characterizes one side, but the other side is using nondiscrimination laws to eliminate religious freedom.” This is a situation where we don’t have to absolutes colliding. We have a collision, but it’s between two different strongly held and valuable values in our society, each of which has to accommodate exceptions. Religious freedom must accommodate the exceptions of the health and safety of the population. If I belong to a religion that advocates worshiping fire, I still can’t have fire in my high rise, for example. That may seem ridiculous example, but there are some analogous cases that have been litigated, and it’s quite clear that religious freedom is not an absolute. Nondiscrimination is not an absolute either. You can’t come forward and say that everybody must be treated equally without regard to a lot of other considerations. Otherwise, a twelve-year-old would have a right to join the army, for example, or whatever other examples one might put forward. They are both absolutely valuable, essential values in our society, but they’re both subject to exceptions, and we’re trying to have a civilized way to meet middle ground and work them out. We’re preaching principles, and we encourage lawmakers to do a good job of it.

NP: Is this sort of a show of force by the Church? I mean, do you expect that lawmakers will pass legislation, particularly here in Utah. A statewide nondiscrimination bill has been elusive for state lawmakers for a number of years. Are you hoping that your statement puts them over the edge?

O: Well, we’re hoping that we can have improvements, and while we have no coercive measures to use on lawmakers–For example, some people may wonder whether there’s Church discipline if somebody votes contrary to what Church leaders want. There’s no case on record of that. We don’t have coercive means, but we have goodwill, and we have a bully pulpit from which to teach, and we have some ideas about principles, and that’s why we’re in the game.

C: In a way, we’re really hopeful that Utah would go forward and provide a model that other states, and maybe even the federal government, could good use or learn from that would be useful in other places. Again, we obviously don’t have the power to impose anything and are not looking for it, don’t want that. But values are what determine any law that gets adopted and it’s sorted out, in a democracy at least, by persuasion. So we hope we’re persuasive, but time will tell.

O: And we’re also interested in discouraging coercive measures. We have many instances we’re aware of where people have been subject to retaliation or discharge from their jobs, or handicapped in their livelihood, because they have spoken or contributed to an issue in the public square. We think that we should have freedom of speech and freedom for people to get out and do what they feel is right to persuade without being subject to retaliatory measures on any side.

NP: You’re calling for a civil, respectful public discourse, and yet in the past the Church has had harsh tones at least to the discussion surrounding LGBT rights. In a Tribune story that we published on Tuesday, Elder Oaks you were quoted as saying that “the Church doesn’t seek apologies, and we don’t give them.” And of course this sparked a whole storm on social media about those who wonder how this view comports with Christian theology. Again, wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to that.

O: I’m not aware that the word “apology” appears anywhere in the scriptures, Bible or Book of Mormon. The word “apology” contains a lot of connotations in it and a lot of significance. We do not seek apologies. When our temple was desecrated in California, when people were fired and intimidated, when a lot of other coercive measures were used, we sought no apology. That’s what I meant by saying, “We don’t seek apology.” We think that the best way to solve these problems is not a formal statement of words that an apology consists of, but talking about principles and goodwill among contending viewpoints.

NP: You know that neither side is going to get everything that they want. Where are you willing to compromise on the religious freedom side?

C: Well, I think that’ll come out in the in the give-and-take. There are, as we said, a few things that we feel are key. People in their homes and in there livelihoods, in their lives, have to be able to act according to their conscience. We had, for example, recently in Canada a provincial bar that voted to prohibit anyone graduating from a particular a law school from practicing law because they had at that school an honor code that prohibited extramarital sex. That kind of thing we can’t tolerate and have freedom of religion and conscience in society. So there’s an extreme case. But it’s going to have to be the sorted out. The main things we’ve talked about are the freedom of the Church to carry out its functions and the freedom of individuals and families to practice their faith, not just talk about it in the walls of their home, but to practice their faith.

O: I can give another example which is more personal. I’m aware of correspondence, because I was involved in it, where an LDS parent wrote and said, “I found out that my son is gay, or he’s ‘come out of the closet’ or whatever, and I forbade him to come to our home, and I cut him off and said he’s not my son anymore.” And I wrote a rather stern reply to that. That’s just not acceptable behavior on the part of a parent and in a loving relationship and even in the public square. So I encouraged the parent to repent and reestablish a loving relationship with the child, even though they regretted very much the communication and the status and so on. But now, that does not mean that a parent needs to accept everything that that child would choose to do in a way that would imply parental endorsement of the behavior. When we get beyond status or a dialogue and get into behavior, then parents have to know where to draw the line.

NP: You’re calling for nondiscrimination laws in housing and employment. One other law that seems almost inevitable–the U.S. Supreme Court, of course, is going to be taking up the gay marriage question, gay marriage already legal here in the state of Utah. Can Mormons who support gay marriage be considered members in good standing if it’s the law of the land?

C: We all live under the law wherever we live, and where that may become or is, we know it is, that’s the law. We do that in, all of us, I think, in our daily lives, live under laws or circumstances that don’t comport with our values, and part of what we’re talking about is learning to live together in a respectful way. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that others have to be coerced into adopting or following or consenting to what the law may permit. The law permits it, but we’re not going to preach it or accept it or live our lives and conduct ourselves according to what that permits. The law permits drinking, you know, and we don’t drink, that sort of thing. So it may be legal and that’s fine, but our practice, our belief, our understanding of what is really, in our view, very basic to the purpose of life is not going to change.

NP: Our time is up, and you’ve been very generous with your time. Finally, you were very clear that this is not a change in Church doctrine. In a practical sense, what does all this mean for members of the Church?

O: While we haven’t changed our doctrine, we’re asking people to be more loving, more understanding, and less confrontive, and we’re addressing how people practice that doctrine. The doctrine is unchanged.

NP: Elder Oaks, Elder Christofferson, thank you so much for your time, for your candor. I hope we can do this again.

C: Nice to be with you.

O: Thank you.

NP: And much more on faith and religion right here at sltrib.com. Thanks so much for tuning in to Trib Talk today. We’ll see you next time.

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