One man’s freedom of expression is another man’s discrimination.

In a news conference this morning in Salt Lake City, leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discussed the widening chasm of understanding between proponents of religious freedom and proponents of gay rights, calling for legislation that ensures the fundamental rights of LGBT people while still maintaining freedoms for others based on their religious persuasion.

Present at the brief press conference were Elders D. Todd Christofferson, Dallin H. Oaks, and Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Sister Neill F. Marriott, Second Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency and member of the Church’s public affairs board.

Interestingly, the entire conference seemed to be built around the concept that religious freedom and gay rights are inherently at odds with one another. Couldn’t one support both? They don’t have to be at opposition to each other, nor should we assume that this is a zero-sum game where we must choose one side or the other.

You can see that distinction in one of Elder Christofferson’s initial remarks:

“We want to share with you our concerns about the increasing tension and polarization between advocates of religious freedom on the one hand, and advocates of gay rights on the other.”

Sister Marriott stressed the importance of equal rights for all of God’s children. They are a basic building block of our society. She called for empathy and understanding, and a cessation of hostilities between religious and LGBT parties.

Elder Oaks discussed the important role governmental bodies play in protecting rights:

“We call on local, state and the federal government to serve all of their people by passing legislation that protects vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation — protections which are not available in many parts of the country.”

So this all about employment, housing, lodging, and eating. Obviously, the leaders skirted references to gay marriage being a right along these same lines.

This is especially resonant because Utah just started its legislative session yesterday, and an anti-discrimination amendment to the Utah constitution is on the table. The Church has actually been working for years with Utah legislators to pass a bill in this vein. If passed, it will represent a major achievement not just for Utah, but also for the LDS Church.

This press conference started a new chapter, as the leaders that spoke discussed clear rights and protections that should be afforded the LGBT population, not just vague references to “rights.”

However, don’t be fooled into thinking this entire conference wasn’t actually aimed at the Supreme Court of the United States, which is set to hear cases on gay marriage in a few months in what will likely be a landmark decision.

Elder Oaks went on to cite recent examples of discrimination against people due to their religious affiliation, including Olympic Gold Medalist Peter Vidmar’s forced resignation from the USOC for supporting Proposition 8 in California and former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich’s resignation for contributing to the same campaign.

Such discrimination is just as abhorrent as that against LGBT communities, he argues:

“Churches should stand on at least as strong a footing as any other entity when they enter the public square when they enter to participate in public policy debates.

“It is one of today’s great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for LGBT rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public policy proposals.”

The Church stresses the following points based around fairness for all:

  1. We claim the right for everyone to live their faith according to the dictates of their own conscience.
  2. That freedom of conscience should apply to men and women everywhere to live whichever faith they want, even if that’s none at all.
  3. Laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance in protecting the freedoms of all people while respecting those with different values.
  4. Reject persecution and retaliation of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief, economic circumstance, or differences in gender or sexual orientation.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland rounded out the brief conference by stressing the need for mature, constructive discourse. Mudslinging isn’t going to change any minds.

He also emphasized how important it is to protect religious institutions’ freedom to choose their own leaders and governing style, as well as protecting religious property, citing the importance of the “… right to use church properties according to their belief, without second-guessing from government.”

Very interesting little point. And while that can easily be seen to mean allowing a body such as BYU to function as it chooses, it also calls into question some of the old restrictions placed upon the Church during Prop 8 – notably that in order to be tax-exempt, our meetinghouses are not to be used for political purposes.

And lastly, from Elder Holland:

“…Church-owned businesses or entities that are directly-related to the purposes and functions of the Church must have the same latitude in employment standards and practices as the Church itself.”

Normally, this first calls to mind adoption services, but LDS Family Services is leaving the adoption game, to the chagrin of many, citing “streamlining” or whatever other corporate euphemism you’d want to place on it. Which other Church-owned business that fit that description could we consider here? Does this mean Bonneville Communications reserves the right to deny its workers birth control? Just spitballing here.

A common theme here is the right of the individual to express his or her religious identity without being condemned for discrimination. Elder Holland singled out doctors who do not wish to provide birth control, or clinics that do not wish to provide fertility services to lesbian couples.

A friend of mine raised an interesting point, though. Religious freedom is a protection for religious institutions. But my privately-held business is not a tax-exempt religious institution. It is subject to anti-discrimination laws. I’m not sure what the appropriate balance here is, because it’s evident that freedom of thought and action will inevitably put people at loggerheads.

My religion might say gay marriage is wrong. Another’s might say gay marriage is right. So which one of us is exercising freedom of religion appropriately when we are both perceived to be discriminating against the other?

Hopefully we do push forward and guarantee important civil liberties for everyone while maintaining religions freedoms. There’s a very tricky balance at play here. What’s your take?