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April 17, 2014

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Reid among Senate’s Mormons who pushed law banning job bias against gays

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid leads a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. From left are Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, Reid, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

At nearly every critical juncture, the Senate bill that passed last week banning workplace discrimination because of gender identity and sexual orientation has had an unconventional and powerful ally.

Mormons, reflecting shifting attitudes inside their church, have stepped in to provide the political muscle, the additional momentum or the decisive vote. And more often than not, they were not just Mormons but Republicans.

The bill, which passed by a vote of 64-32 with 10 Republicans joining, was a priority of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, who, as the Mormon Church’s highest-ranking member in government, put the nondiscrimination measure at the top of the Senate’s agenda once the government reopened last month.

“People shouldn’t be able to fire them because of their sexual orientation any more than you can fire them if they’re Mormon,” Reid said Thursday in an interview.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, one of the Senate’s longest-serving members, became the first Republican to signal he would reverse his opposition as the bill faced a crucial vote in committee. He voted against a similar bill the last time it came up in the Senate — 17 years ago — but changed his mind this year after Gordon H. Smith, a fellow Mormon and former Republican senator from Oregon, convinced him there was nothing in it that violated church doctrine.

“The church does want to be helpful where we can be, without violating our own conscience,” Smith, a former bishop, said in an interview.

And as the bill approached a key vote last week, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., who has taught Sunday school at his Mormon church, provided the crucial 60th vote to break a filibuster.

In the end, all but two of the Senate’s seven Mormons voted yes.

Their support for including civil rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is the latest example of a broader evolution by some of the most visible members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have come to cautiously embrace gay rights. It is a remarkable turnabout from just five years ago, when the church faced a maelstrom of criticism for backing the initiative in California that took away the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Unlike the issue of marriage, which the church views as an inviolable doctrine, nondiscrimination law has become one subject that Mormons of all political stripes can safely seem to support. Indeed, the church backed a provision in Salt Lake City in 2009 that extended many of the same workplace protections as the Senate bill. It did not, however, take a public position during the Senate debate.

The church has also embarked on a public relations campaign to soften the perception that it is homophobic. It has even created a website called MormonsandGays.org, which points out that while acting on same-sex attraction is a sin, “With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

Heller, who voted against a similar nondiscrimination measure in 2007 when he was a member of the House, said he was typical of members of his faith who had come around on the issue.

“Where American families are becoming more inclusive, I think the same is true of the LDS faith,” he said. “We believe we should treat people with dignity, and you saw that on the immigration reform issue as well. It’s an issue of fairness.”

Success in the Senate guarantees nothing in the House, where the measure faces serious Republican resistance. Speaker John Boehner has made no commitment to put it to a vote, a prospect that drew criticism from President Barack Obama after the Senate vote.

“One party in one house of Congress should not stand in the way of millions of Americans who want to go to work each day and simply be judged by the job they do,” the president said in hailing the Senate vote.

Building support among the Senate’s Mormons had always been part of the strategy for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who reached out to the man he beat in 2008 — Smith — for help.

“He can speak from a perspective that I might not be able to replicate,” Merkley said of his former rival.

When Smith asked how he might help, Merkley suggested he reach out to Hatch.

Of all the Republican senators who came around to supporting the bill, Hatch, 79, was in some ways the least obvious. He is solidly conservative on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. He is one of the oldest members of the Senate. But Smith, who co-sponsored the hate crimes bill named for Matthew Shepard, said he appealed to Hatch’s “constructive conservatism.”

Shortly before the committee vote in July, he said he reminded Hatch about the church’s support for the Salt Lake City initiative and impressed on him that this was an issue of conscience.

“These are positions that I came to as a matter of my own conscience long ago,” he said.

“It’s just the right thing,” Hatch said as he walked into the Senate chamber to vote. “Religion should be respected, and so should people.”

More so than his Republican colleagues, Reid has distanced himself from some of his church’s attitudes toward homosexuality, most notably saying its involvement in the California same-sex marriage fight was wrongheaded.

But he has not always been so open-minded, and in 1996 he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.

In an interview Thursday, he recalled how he once considered sexual orientation “kind of an environmental thing” but said he later realized that orientation was not in fact a choice.

He has a lesbian niece he said had “helped us work our way through the issues.”

He recalled having two neighbors in Nevada he always called “the bachelors.” Thinking of them now, he said, he realizes they must have been gay.

“Let’s assume they got married. What difference would it make to me and my family? Zero. None. None,” Reid said.

He has been to two same-sex weddings this year, including one where he gave a toast to the grooms.

Mormons, who have seen their own share of bias, should be especially sensitive, he said.

“I would think that members of the church should understand that one of the things that should be paramount in their minds,” he said, “is how they’ve been treated.”

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