by Hermia Lyly
Dear Elder Rasband,
Today you gave a BYU Devotional about religious freedom, in which you compared the hypothetical experiences of Ethan, a man fired for being gay, and Samantha, a woman who felt pressured to search for a new job because her coworkers were disturbed by her religious beliefs. My wife and I listened to your devotional from our home, hoping to hear words of comfort and love.
Within a few minutes, we had to turn off your devotional address–both my wife and I were sweating and nearly shaking because we were so disappointed by your message. While my response to you is regrettably incomplete because I did not finish listening to your devotional, I felt the need to protect my home from your words. After all, as a child I was taught that my home should be a place of love and understanding, free from discord and contention. I was told that I should only seek after virtuous, lovely, and praiseworthy things; unfortunately, your address was none of these. I do hope that the rest of your address was better than its first few minutes–if that’s the case, I would gladly listen further.
Elder Rasband, I am not here to convince you to change your stance on the rights and freedoms that the Lord’s LGBTQIA+ children deserve. That can only come in the Lord’s time, and it is not my place to question how the Lord speaks to us. However, I hope that by reading my response to your devotional, you will understand a few of the differences between religious freedom and LGBTQIA+ rights, and that you will not fall into the mistake–as you did in your devotional–of making false analogies.
I would like to address the problems between your comparison of Ethan’s and Samantha’s experiences in the workplace. In your story, Ethan was fired for being gay, while Samantha decided to look elsewhere for work because her coworkers did not like her Mormon beliefs. In the study of rhetorical arguments, this comparison is known as a false analogy. While there are certainly some similarities between Ethan’s and Samantha’s experiences, it is false to say that Samantha and Ethan are experiencing equal levels of discrimination, as your devotional seemed to imply. (A more accurate analogy would be if Ethan was fired for being gay and Samantha was fired for being straight.)
You see, Elder Rasband, one major difference between being an LGBTQIA+ person in the workforce and being a religious person in the workforce is that a religious person is protected from being fired by Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to Title VII, a employer cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” So even though Samantha may feel uncomfortable at work and want to apply elsewhere, it is absolutely illegal for her boss to fire her for being LDS. In fact, even if her boss doesn’t fire her, if Samantha can prove that her boss is discriminating against her because of her religion she can sue her boss for religious discrimination.
Ethan, on the other hand, is at the mercy of geography. Regrettably, there are dozens of states and hundreds of cities in the USA that have not yet passed laws to prevent employees being discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. So depending on where Ethan lives in the US, his boss could fire him for being gay. In fact, his boss wouldn’t have to give any other justification. Ethan could be an outstanding employee and a great coworker, and then the next minute be fired with no explanation other than that his boss doesn’t want to have a gay employee. (And this is just in the US. In many other countries, it gets far worse for LGBTQIA+ people.)
No matter how you try to spin it, workplace discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people and workplace discrimination against religious people are not similar enough to be a useful analogy.
Trust me, I know this because I’m currently in the workforce, and I’m both queer and religious.
As a queer Mormon woman, I admit that sometimes I’ve felt a little nervous at work when discussing religious matters. I know that many of my coworkers have had varied experiences with Mormon family, friends, neighbors, and missionaries, so I am aware that people may have negative emotions associated with the LDS Church (it doesn’t help that we send strangers knocking on their doors, either 😉 ). Yet even though I know that some of my coworkers may not like the Church, I also have never, ever been discriminated against at work for being Mormon. In fact, my bosses have never expressed any concern about my religious beliefs or practices–except, interestingly, at BYU, where a number of my bosses made me feel uncomfortable for not practicing my religion the way they thought best. Should I have sued them?
Again, as a queer Mormon woman, I have frequently feared that disclosing my sexual orientation will affect my employment negatively. When I worked at BYU, I desperately needed to tell someone about my sexual orientation and my struggles to understand what it meant for me. I nearly told one of my bosses (who was also my good friend) about my orientation, but I refrained because I knew that with just a few phone calls, she could not only fire me but also take away my schooling and housing. As a result, I suffered in silence. I worked with coworkers who made insensitive jokes about LGBTQIA+ people, who said slurs such as f*g and d*ke, and used “that’s so gay” as an insult. BYU was a very unsafe work environment, and the only reason I made it through was because I was judicious about who I told about my sexual orientation.
Even outside of BYU, I have experienced casual discrimination and micro-aggressions in the workplace as a result of my sexual orientation. I can’t count the times that coworkers and bosses have assumed I have a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend, a husband instead of a wife–do you know how awkward it is to correct them and hope that they’re approve of your personal relationships? (Which is none of their business, by the way.) I can’t count the times that coworkers have made my sexual orientation into a joke, which I try to laugh at, even though they are still hurtful. Luckily, I currently work at an institution that respects LGBTQIA+ people, but overall, I still find it more difficult to be queer in the workplace than it is for me to be religious.
Elder Rasband, the fact of the matter is that unless you are also queer, you simply cannot understand what it’s like to be queer in the workforce. Trust me, it’s not the same as being religious. And it’s insulting to both to make them seem more similar than they actually are. Just because I sprained my ankle doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to break an arm. So please don’t assume that just because your coworkers don’t like Mormon doctrine means that you are being discriminated against just as much as a person who is fired for their sexual orientation. This kind of reasoning makes it look like you have a persecution complex. It makes it look like you are seeking out ways to be offended, which we have been counseled against.
If we are to host a truly thoughtful and productive discussion on religious freedom and sexual orientation in the workplace, we need to stop relying on false analogies and misleading arguments. We need to realize that in the current US political and cultural climate, it is more dangerous at work to be LGBTQIA+ than it is to be religious. Instead of worrying about our own pretty secure religious rights, perhaps, like Christ, we should come to the aid of those who are in a worse situation than ourselves, to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”
(P.S. For those who believe I am treating the LDS Church’s attitude towards LGBTQIA+ people unfairly because of the anti-discrimination legislation in SLC and Utah that the Church supported, keep in mind that this legislation also had copious amounts of new and overreaching rights for religions. As a result, this legislation not only weakened the power of the clauses prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation, but also provided needless extra protection for religions–such as making it illegal for religions to be required to perform wedding ceremonies that go against their beliefs, when it has always been illegal in the USA to require a religious organization to perform wedding ceremonies against their beliefs. Taxpayer money was wasted on created a law that was already enforced and unchallenged. From a legislative standpoint, the bill seemed to throw some crumbs (much needed crumbs, yes, but still crumbs) to the LGBTQIA+ community, while adding to the banquet of Christian privilege and religious rights.)