On Tuesday, ahead of the Senate’s planned vote on a law to protect some rights of same-sex couples, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a surprising statement in support of the Senate’s Respect for Marriage Act. “We believe this approach is the way forward. As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding,” wrote the Mormon church, which has long taught that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin and excluded the children of same-sex couples from baptisms and naming ceremonies.
Of course, the show of support for this particular bill is not as much of a bear hug to LGBTQ rights as it may seem. A closer look at the nuts and bolts of the Senate’s Respect for Marriage Act shows that it doesn’t codify a federal right to same-sex marriage; rather, it requires state governments to respect same-sex marriages that happened when same-sex marriage was legal. The bill requires the same for interracial married couples. The Respect for Marriage Act is a response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade this summer, which prompted Justice Clarence Thomas to write a concurring opinion setting up the court’s previous decisions around same-sex and interracial marriage—Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 and Loving v. Virginia in 1967, respectively—to be reconsidered in the future.
The Respect for Marriage Act has drawn significant bipartisan support in Congress and even among religious groups because, in addition to not enshrining a federal same-sex marriage right, it also codifies strong “religious freedom” rights for faith-based groups and organizations. The bill gives them significant leeway to discriminate against LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, almost as a tradeoff for state governments to recognize currently legally married same-sex couples no matter how the Supreme Court rules in the future.
Despite its Tuesday statement, the Mormon Church continues to hold a hard-line stance that same-sex relationships are innately sinful. The church’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act is reminiscent of its 2016 statement that same-sex attraction itself is not a sin, and only acting on it is. The small concessions that the Mormon Church has historically made around LGBTQ identities tend to come with major conditions. In the case of the Mormon Church’s support for the bipartisan Senate bill, the church agrees the legality of existing same-sex marriages should be recognized. And it gains a codified, federal legal right to continue to discriminate against same-sex couples by prohibiting them from being married in Mormon churches.
Tim Schultz, the president of the 1st Amendment Partnership, told the Associated Press that the Respect for Marriage Act is likely to attract support from faith-based groups as their best shot to strengthen “religious liberty” rights. “Same-sex marriage has achieved broad appeal in our culture in significant part because it hasn’t trampled on people who believe in traditional marriage,” Schultz told the outlet, which reads as a pretty back-handed statement of “support” for LGBTQ relationships.
Despite the bill’s shortcomings, some, including Equality Utah, still recognize the Mormon Church’s support for the Respect for Marriage Act as a step—even if a small one—toward progress. The AP points out that members of the Mormon Church were the top donors supporting California’s Prop. 8 in 2008, a ballot measure that defined marriage as between a man and a woman across the state as a rebuke to cities like San Francisco that were granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. To come out in support of a bill granting some federal protections to same-sex couples 14 years later is a pretty sharp pivot.
“Despite differences we may have, we can always discover common ground on laws that support the strengthening of all families,” Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah who grew up as a member of the Mormon Church, told the AP.