Sexual orientation, religious freedom and law


Why are sexual thoughts a central matter of law and policy but religious thoughts are irrelevant to law and policy?

Religious freedom is all about its “exercise.” There are no concerns in a free society about what religious people think, only about what religious people do. Public concerns about religious belief are rarely provoked by what a religious person thinks, only how that religious person exercises her beliefs. A religious person could believe in animal sacrifice but, unless that person actually “sacrifices” an animal, law and society have no claim on those thoughts and beliefs. Religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, don’t litigate over beliefs – they litigate over the free exercise of those beliefs.

The point for law and society is this: Nobody cares about what you think; we only care about what you do – unless, of course, in this day and age, we are talking about the politics of sexual orientation (i.e., same-sex attraction). Your mind’s eye might be drawn to the image of Professor Harold Hill’s “Think System” (from The Music Man) – thinking something is being something.

In this unique example of sexual orientation, law and society are called upon to consider what someone thinks. Homosexual activists and their supporters – including now, by implication, the LDS Church and Boy Scouts of America (BSA) – claim that there should be heightened attention in their private institutions, and qualified attention in law and policy, addressing the fundamental differences between orientation and behavior.

BSA is now confident in the matter: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” And, “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting” (italics added). BSA accepts youth with no thought about sexual orientation, yet homosexual conduct is prohibited.

Likewise, the LDS Church is confident on where it stands: “The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.” And, “From a public relations perspective it would be easier for the Church to simply accept homosexual behavior. That we cannot do, for God’s law is not ours to change. There is no change in the Church’s position of what is morally right” (italics added).

Commenting on the LDS Church position regarding the new BSA policy, Church spokesperson Michael Otterson remarked, “Sexual orientation has not previously been — and is not now — a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops.”

Addressing sexual orientation at a recent conference on religious freedom, LDS Church Elder Lance B. Wickman stated, “More recently, we have come to understand that some people also form powerful identities around sexual orientation. … For some people, sexual identity is the defining characteristic of who and what they view themselves to be.” And further, “[a]ll of these secular aspects of human identity are now widely seen not only as something vitally important to individuals in their private lives, but as worthy of public acceptance and accommodation. We no longer demand that people remain ‘in the closet’ or silent about important elements of their personal identity. … This openness and acceptance can be very positive.”

Continuing from his same remarks, perhaps unintentionally highlighting the incongruity between how orientation and behavior are treated differently in the minds of many people, Elder Wickman explained, “Because religion is fundamental to our very identities, it follows that the free exercise of religion must never be deemed a second-class or subordinate right. … In other words, a new closet is being constructed for those with traditional religious values on sexuality.”

The free exercise of sexual orientation is homosexuality, frowned upon by the LDS Church and BSA. On the other hand, same-sex attraction consists of mere thoughts or feelings. Not only are these not frowned upon by both private institutions, but evidently, such thoughts are now accepted by the LDS Church as uniquely unchosen among the countless chosen thoughts of mere mortals. *

Here’s the broad legal and policy conundrum: Why are sexual thoughts a central matter of law and policy but religious thoughts are irrelevant to law and policy? Here’s another way to ask the question: If religious belief is relevant to law and policy only in its exercise, why isn’t sexual orientation relevant in law and policy only in its exercise?

When it comes to religion, does society stake a claim on someone’s personal thoughts? No. So why then are we increasingly interested as a society in someone’s sexual thoughts? We make no laws about someone’s religious thoughts, and yet we increasingly make laws about someone’s sexual thoughts.

At a 2013 legislative hearing on a statewide nondiscrimination bill, sponsored by State Senator Steve Urquhart, I testified,

This idea of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is the first time in my memory that this legislature is being asked to pass a law about what a person thinks. Up to now, Utah law has dealt with what people do. Now the legislature is being asked to legislate penalties for what a person is accused of thinking – that is, penalizing everyone, except supporters of this bill and entities who lobby for exemptions, from its harm.

The bill being heard, SB 262, carried provisions that not only highlighted the term “sexual orientation,” it included references to “perceived as” – as in, one person could perceive discrimination in another person (i.e., read her mind or heart). In response to my comment, Senator Urquhart said in that committee hearing, matter-of-factly, that SB 262 had nothing to do with what a person thinks. He did not explain the nature of sexual orientation or address the “perceived as” clauses in the bill. Ironically, like most other bills of its type, SB 262 defined sexual orientation as “heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality” – clinically all expressions of behaviors.

I have been told and reminded, ad nauseam, that sexual orientation is about feelings, thoughts and attractions, not sexual behavior – someone can have same-sex attraction without acting on it. Question: If we legislate sexual orientation, are we not then legislating feelings, thoughts and attractions? And, if we are, can anyone point to any other example under the law where the law explicitly endorses (and penalizes others for disagreeing with) someone’s personal feelings, thoughts and attractions?

And, by the way, just to be crystal clear, when the LDS Church and others inculcate the term “same-sex attraction” into our vocabulary, it means same-sex sexual attraction. The LDS Church and others are not talking about same-sex attraction for the color blue or a certain scent of perfume or an attraction for a particular sport – they mean sexual attraction. In the LDS Church, if a man is struggling with same-sex attraction, he is struggling with his sexual feelings toward other men – not his love for other men (or mankind), but his sexual feelings for other men. When Elder Wickman speaks of same-sex attraction as “important elements of their personal identity,” he is speaking about a person’s sexual identity.

As BSA uses the term sexual orientation synonymously with same-sex attraction, it is stating that such a youth has same-sex sexual attractions. These few youth who self-identify as “gay,” now welcomed into Scouting, have active sexual feelings for other boys or men.

To take the differences between orientation and behavior one step further, homosexual activists might be surprised to understand the real reason why the LDS Church and BSA have no issue with same-sex attraction or sexual orientation. The fact is that the LDS Church and BSA don’t care about, nor can they do anything about, what a person thinks. In religious terms, we could liken these thoughts to mortality in general – everyone thinks bad thoughts, but not everyone acts on them, so we only care about what people do. It’s part of mortality and human weakness.

So, in a weird public relations twist, the heightened attention to same-sex attraction and sexual orientation by the LDS Church and BSA, respectively, more than implies they actually don’t care what you think at all – go ahead and think you’re “gay” or Superman or whatever because it just doesn’t matter one iota. All that matters to them is what you do.

Of course, not explained is why BSA or the LDS Church have chosen to politicize their opinions about the irrelevancy of sexual thoughts within their programs – that is, why do the obvious aspects of prior policy (i.e., thoughts alone have never disqualified someone from participation) need to be highlighted and specified regarding homosexuality?

There is an inevitable reckoning that will occur between those people and institutions that draw substantive distinctions between thoughts and behavior in matters pertaining to homosexuality and how those distinctions are applied in law and policy. Either thoughts of homosexuality are relevant, or they are not, for these people and institutions. As it stands, we are left with an obvious incongruity: Evidently someone’s personal thoughts pertaining to homosexuality don’t matter for the LDS Church and BSA – but as they pertain to law and policy, such as qualified support for nondiscrimination ordinances by the LDS Church, they do matter.

Such issues are much clearer for homosexual activists and their political supporters, such as Senator Urquhart – it matters what you think, and what you think (or disagree with) is a matter of law and society.

Welcome to the world of sexual politics – welcome to River City.


*As a Latter-day Saint, I am curious about the contention that thoughts don’t matter as they pertain to homosexuality (i.e., sexual orientation) and that only behavior matters. Even a cursory search of the LDS Church official website reveals statements like this:

[F]eelings of hate, envy, and jealousy, or of any other negative impulse or idea, can be changed by the control of one’s thoughts. And this is something which lies within the sole power of the individual. No one can prevent you from thinking what you wish. Within the sanctity of your mind, you are the king or the queen. There you rule. There you can determine which thoughts will be given precedence, which thoughts will be allowed to take root, and which will be expelled.

But with such control over thought comes a corresponding responsibility. We will be judged by our own thoughts as well as by our words and actions. “Our thoughts will also condemn us,” said Alma (Alma 12:14).

When he was a boy, President George Albert Smith was taught this principle by Karl G. Maeser. Years later he told a seminary graduating class, “A thirteen-year-old boy, whose thoughts galloped around as mine did couldn’t understand why I should be held accountable for my thoughts. I was sure Dr. Maeser was a truthful man; but I couldn’t understand how I could be charged for my thoughts because I couldn’t control them.” President Smith fretted over this idea, which stuck to him “like a burr” until one day it came to him “like a flash from the sky … of course you will be held accountable for your thoughts.” He explained, “When your life is complete in mortality, it will be the sum of your thoughts” (George Albert Smith Collection, Univ. of Utah, ms 36, Scrapbook 1, p. 256; Church News, 16 Feb. 1946, p. 1).

With this in view, it is vital that young Latter-day Saints become more selective about their thoughts. We literally become what we think about. Therefore, one whose mind is absorbed with evil, dirty and unworthy thoughts will assuredly become an evil, dirty and unworthy person. Conversely, one whose mind dwells on positive, uplifting and creative thoughts will inevitably develop these qualities of character. In a world such as ours, inundated with pornography and degrading movies and literature, it often is not possible to prevent improper thoughts from entering our minds. But it is possible for us to monitor them, to expel those that are unworthy of a Latter-day Saint, and to retain and to feast upon those that are elevating and motivating.