Tuesday, September 14, 2021


Before I acquired so many children and dogs, I used to collect antique maps and prints. Above the stereo cabinet in our living room is a poster with the slogan “Strengthen Liberty.” It commemorates my time in Chicago as a gay rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. 

The poster was actually printed for the Boy Scouts of America’s fortieth anniversary in 1950, the year that also marked the ACLU’s thirtieth anniversary. BSA and the ACLU share a comically similar taste in patriotic graphic design.


I keep this picture of the Statue of Liberty, an American flag, a Boy Scout, a Cub Scout, and an Explorer to remind me that some things change, and some things don’t. Because some people won’t change.

John Hammell and Keith Richardson in Windy City Times

When I arrived in Chicago in 1995, I inherited an appeal defending the ACLU’s victory in an employment discrimination case against the local Boy Scout council. John Hammell, the founder of the ACLU of Illinois LGBT Right Project, had filed suit on behalf of Keith Richardson under the City of Chicago’s antidiscrimination ordinance. John and Keith were both Eagle Scouts. (I think I made it to Second Class Scout.) After the Chicago Area Council rejected Keith’s employment application because he was an “avowed homosexual,” the Chicago Human Rights Commission determined the Boy Scouts violated Chicago’s ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.


Sexual orientation has nothing to do with Scouting. Nevertheless, decades ago the Boy Scouts adopted an internal anti-gay policy excluding LGBT youth and adult leaders. BSA acted at the behest of some of its major organizational partners, including the Mormon church. For many decades, the Mormons sponsored more Boy Scout troops, Cub packs, and Explorer posts than any other organization. Scouting was the churchs official youth program for boys when I was growing up.


The First Amendment guarantees the right of “expressive association,” which means a private organization like the Boy Scouts can exclude members whose statements or presence would prevent the organization communicating its chosen message. Until advocates like the ACLU and Lambda Legal came along, most people didn’t know about BSA’s exclusionary policy. After critics began speaking out and LGBT rights lawyers began challenging the Boy Scouts’ anti-gay policy, BSA started identifying homophobia as one of its core values – preaching that it’s impossible for a gay individual to live up to the Scout Oath’s promise to be “morally straight.” In June 2000, the United States Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote in Dale v. Boy Scouts of America that the First Amendment protected BSA’s exclusionary policy from the application of local anti-discrimination laws. 


In hindsight, the Boy Scouts of America won the battle but lost the war. A year after the Dale decision, Lambda Legal’s Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said “I’m disappointed that we lost the court ruling, but never have we lost so successfully. It must be driving the Boy Scouts crazy - to keep thinking this is going to die down, and yet it doesnt stop.” Gregg Shields, the Boy Scouts’ longtime spokesman, told another reporter that despite winning in the Supreme Court, it felt like BSA lost.

The Advocate (March 17, 1998)

When I was working on the Richardson v. Chicago Area Council appeal, I could see the writing on the wall. The Boy Scouts were absolutely committed to their anti-gay policy. Eventually the mounting evidence of BSA’s homophobic statements and conduct would demonstrate to any court that the phrase “morally straight” should be taken literally as one of the organization’s core expressive values. At some point the excruciatingly principled folks at the ACLU would have to start defending BSA, just like we would with the First Amendment rights of Ku Klux Klan marchers or Nazis parading through Skokie.


It was time to redirect pressure toward the partners and sponsors of Scouting whose own values embraced LGBT inclusion. Because the Richardson case had generated a full trial record, I inherited a mountain of documents showing how Scouting works. The Girl Scouts are like Starbucks – GSA owns and operates each individual Girl Scout troop. In contrast, the Boys Scouts are organized like McDonald’s – BSA and its regional councils franchise or “charter” local organizations to operate each youth group in accordance with BSA’s policies. The charter approach greatly expands BSA’s reach.


The Richardson case file included a printout identifying the organization holding the charter for each of the 400+ Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout packs, and Explorer posts chartered by the Chicago Area Council. Many of the chartered organizations were schools and other governmental entities, as well as various private groups and churches. For example, a substantial share of Explorer posts in Chicago and nationwide were operated by government agencies.


So I filed a lawsuit against the Chicago School District, instead of against the Boy Scouts. I argued that the government cannot exclude youth or adults from taxpayer-funded programs just because someone signed a homophobic charter agreement with a discriminatory private organization. Our plaintiffs were a Methodist minister and Kevin Poloncarz, a gay law student. After a few months of litigation, the school district agreed to voluntarily end its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory programs. 


The next week BSA announced it was opening its Explorer posts nationwide to every youth, regardless of sexual orientation or religious belief. That earnest teenaged Explorer saluting in my vintage poster?  As of 1998, it was ok for him to be gay.

Every religion has its little quirks. Transubstantiation. Lutheran hotdish. Yarmulkes. Usually these peculiar beliefs do not interfere with adherents’ ability to participate in ordinary society. Since the LDS Church’s founding in 1830, Mormon doctrine has dramatically diverged from the American mainstream only three times. 

In the nineteenth century the divisive issue was polygamy. Joseph Smith, who claimed to see God and later produced the Book of Mormon, was the first Mormon Prophet. Brother Joseph was a charismatic, visionary, strange man. Before an Illinois mob shot and killed him, Joseph told his closest confidants God had revealed that the highest degree of heaven required a man to marry multiple wives. (It’s not clear whether Joseph ever told his wife Emma this, even after Joseph secretly married the nanny and several other attractive young women.) 

Joseph Smith led the church for its action-packed first fourteen years. His death in 1844 amid continuing attacks by their neighbors left the Mormons in disarray. Characteristically ambiguous, Joseph sent mixed messages about who would succeed him, and the saints split into various factions. The largest group followed Brigham Young, the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 


Brother Brigham was God’s dude on Earth for the next thirty-three years. He was a very different kind of leader compared to Joseph Smith, yet exactly the shepherd his demoralized flock needed. Young took Joseph Smith’s wild visions and translated them for a practical world. He held his grieving people together, then led them across the prairies and mountains all the way out of the country. After the United States stole Utah and the rest of the West from Mexico three years later, Brother Brigham pragmatically became territorial governor. History recognizes Brigham Young as an American Moses. 

As with many other aspects of Joseph Smith’s creative theology, Brother Brigham organized and systemized polygamy. Brigham himself married fifty-five wives. Despite my Mormon pioneer heritage, I only have one polygamous ancestor. Leishmans are bad at multi-tasking, and as marginal family farmers they couldn’t meet the strict financial requirements for polygamy anyway. 

By the time Brigham Young died in 1877, the United States was targeting polygamy for extermination. Within a few years Church leaders were in hiding or in prison. The federal government seized the Salt Lake Temple and other church property. Families like the Romneys crossed the border to found Mormon colonies in Mexico and Canada.  

In 1890, Brigham’s successor Wilford Woodruff announced “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice.” He issued a Manifesto that abandoned and denounced the previously eternal principle of plural marriage. Nowadays you’ll only see polygamists on HBO in Big Love, or in Northern Arizona compounds where folks in quaint outfits still believe everything Joseph Smith and Brigham Young said.   

Seventy-five years after the Utah branch of Mormons abandoned polygamy, the church found itself in conflict with evolving American values regarding race.

During the nineteenth century, the Mormons picked up a lot of racist myths and folk theology. As a result, no one with a “drop” of African blood could be ordained to the priesthood, or participate in the Church’s most sacred rites. Like so many other Americans since 1619, one generation of Mormon leaders after another were flawed human beings who embraced and perpetuated structural racism. 

The church’s anti-Black doctrine became increasingly untenable in the 1960s and 70s. Missionaries found it heartbreaking to turn away enthusiastic converts in multiracial nations like Brazil. College athletes refused to play against teams from BYU. Ordinary Mormons found the dissonance between their Christian values and the Brethren’s out-of-touch dogma unbearable.


One of the advantages of a rigidly hierarchical organizational structure is that a single person has the power to end centuries of evil. In 1978, when I was a Boy Scout, the Mormon Prophet was Spencer W. KimballAfter “spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance,” President Kimball “received a revelation extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church.”

Like his predecessor President Woodruff, Spencer W. Kimball chose people over dogma. Because of his humility and vision, Mormons and their church finally began the long process of emerging from a century and a half of entrenched systemic racism.

Other supposed Christians were even slower than the Mormons on race. Conservative evangelical Bob Jones founded his eponymous university in 1927. His grandson Bob Jones III was president of the university in 1971 when it admitted its first Black students. Nevertheless, the Joneses and the university were convinced God had forbidden miscegenation, and therefore retained their rules against interracial dating and marriage.

In 1976, the Internal Revenue Service revoked Bob Jones University’s tax-exempt status on the grounds that it practiced racial discrimination. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled against the university in an 8-1 decision. (Justice Rehnquist dissented. Typical.)

Last week in “Move On,” I wrote about the work of REAP – the Religious Exemption Accountability Project – which was founded last year by my former law firm colleague Paul Southwick. REAP seeks to apply the logic of IRS v. Bob Jones University to private colleges that accept government funding, yet insist on discriminating against LGBT students. Religious organizations should be free to practice their discriminatory beliefs – but not if they want to accept the benefits of being part of a civilized community.  

Bob Jones III abandoned the university’s interracial dating ban in 2000, after a campus visit by presidential candidate George W. Bush provoked intense media scrutiny. In 2008, Bob Jones University finally apologized for having allowed “institutional policies to remain in place that were racially hurtful.”

With the Mormon church, the good news is that interracial couples have been permitted to marry in the temple since 1978. The bad news is that the church still hasn’t apologized for its racist past – just like the Brethren have yet to offer a word of apology for their decades of abusively homophobic words and deeds. 

Rachel Maddow on the Bob Jones University apology

In the decades after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dale, the Boy Scouts faced increased internal and external opposition to its anti-gay policy. Membership and donations plummeted. As CBS News reported

In 2013, after heated internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. Several denominations that collectively sponsor close to half of all Scout units – including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church and the Southern Baptist Convention – have been apprehensive about ending the ban on gay adults.

Just two years later, the Boy Scouts of America announced a compromise that “ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders, while allowing church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.”

But the Mormons were already on their way out the door.

In 1913, the Mormon church became the Boy Scouts’ very first sponsor in the United States. For the next century every Mormon congregation chartered at least one Boy Scout troop, and every Mormon boy was automatically enrolled in Scouting. Even me. The immediate past president of the church, Thomas S. Monson, was a member of BSA’s National Executive Board, and a recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award, BSA’s highest honor.

President Monson died on January 2, 2018. His successor, Russell M. Nelson, is a 97-year old former heart surgeon. President Nelson has focused his tenure on getting everyone to stop using the word Mormon. (The formal name of the church is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Even the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has been rebranded.

One of the most interesting items I found in the Richardson v. Chicago Area Council files twenty-five years ago was a transcript from the deposition of Jack H. Gosalind, then the Mormon church’s Young Men’s President. Elder Gosalind testified that the church’s two top ecclesiastical bodies – the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles – had each adopted written policies stating that if BSA ever backed away from its anti-gay policy, the church would end its relationship with Scouting. 

Four months after President Monson’s death, the Mormon church announced that it was following through with the Brethrens threat, and terminated its 105-year relationship with the Boy Scouts.

Last week in “Move On” I responded to a recent speech by Mormon apostle Jeffrey Holland, who used to be the president of Brigham Young University and my English professor. Afterwards several friends asked me how long I thought it would take before the church backed away from its anti-gay message and dogma. 

My prediction:  decades. In the meantime, thousands of LGBT Mormons and their families will continue to suffer, and a generation of would-be saints will drift away from the Brethren’s perplexing and unchristian fundamentalism.

The panel that made me weep the first time I saw the AIDS Memorial Quilt 

Here are three reasons for my pessimism. 

First, as Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” The Brethren have history of taking their marbles home to Salt Lake to sulk. At the conclusion of his recent anti-gay speech to BYU’s assembled faculty and staff, Elder Holland issued a threat that echoed Elder Gosalind’s deposition testimony in the Boy Scout case:

We could mimic every other university in the world until we got a bloody nose in the effort and the world would still say, “BYU who?” No, we must have the will to stand alone, if necessary, being a university second to none in its role primarily as an undergraduate teaching institution that is unequivocally true to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in the process. If at a future time that mission means forgoing some professional affiliations and certifications, then so be it. There may come a day when the price we are asked to pay for such association is simply too high, too inconsistent with who we are. No one wants it to come to that, but, if it does, we will pursue our own destiny….

I pity BYU students and graduates as they try to explain why they went to an unaccredited Bible school. Fortunately, like Elder Holland I have a degree from Yale to compensate for my B.A. from Bob Jones University of the West.

Second, the Mormon church is a rigid gerontocracy. Ever since Brigham Young seized the martyred Joseph Smith’s mantle, the church presidency has automatically gone to the senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The current church president fills each apostolic vacancy with a thoroughly vetted disciple. Nowadays no one with the prophetic spark that inspired Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Spencer W. Kimball can sneak into the Quorum.

President Nelson just turned 97. His presumed successor, legalistic bigot Dallin Oaks, is 88. Next in line is Russell Ballard, age 92, followed by Jeffrey Holland. Although Elder Holland is a relative youth at age 80, his recent speech at BYU demonstrated his homophobic bona fides. As with the Trump-skewed Supreme Court, religious political extremists will retain control over Mormon doctrine for the foreseeable future.

Third, Mormon hostility to LGBT dignity and equality is inescapably tied to the church’s doctrine about gender roles, including their extraordinary and inspiring belief that we have both a Father and a Mother in Heaven.

The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles issued a “Proclamation on the Family” in 1995, at the height of hysteria over the mere possibility of marriage equality. Many states rushed to pass “Defense of Marriage Acts.” You will not be surprised to learn Utah’s mostly Mormon legislators won the race to pass the first DOMA in the country.


The Proclamation insists on a very narrow vision of what a family looks like:


Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.… By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children…. God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.


Apparently our Mother in Heaven is the kind of wife who sits in silence while staring up adoringly at her husband. Like the church’s all-male gerontocracy itself, the language of the Proclamation on the Family comes directly from the era of Ozzie and Harriet. Nevertheless, I barely notice the Proclamation’s pervasive sexism. Instead, I’m inevitably drawn to these words:


Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”


As I wrote in “Our Family,” the Mormon authors and readers of the “Proclamation on the Family” didn't realize “gender” is not the same thing as “sex.” These are not Women’s Studies majors. Instead, they probably thought “gender” is just a euphemism for “sex” that doesn’t sound so, well, sexy.

In the New Testament, Jesus says “in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” Matt. 22:30. Where other Christians have stuck with this bright-line rule for 2000 years, I’ve always appreciated the Mormons’ openness to creative theology. Nevertheless, as applied to the reality of LGBT experience, Mormon doctrine is on a collision course with itself.

I’m a humble English Major, not a theologian. I’m not here to fine-tune Mormon eschatology, just to point out the lessons of history. The current Mormon doctrine privileging eternal male-female couples only goes back as far as President Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto. Before that, Mormons believed God only loved polygamists. Before that, Mormons who wanted to get into Heaven were “sealed” in the temple to a righteous man. Surely God can also find room at the heavenly family reunion for His and Her lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children.

For many of us, the most offensive and abusive aspect of the Mormons’ anti-gay campaign has been their insistence that LGBT people do not even exist – we’re just weak sinners who struggle to overcome what both Mormons and their allies in the discredited field of “reparative therapy” insist on calling “same-sex attraction.” For example, this quote comes from an influential 1996 sermon by Dallin Oaks, currently President of the Quorum of the Twelve and heir to the Prophet’s mantle: 


We should note that the words homosexual, lesbian, and gay are adjectives to describe particular thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. We should refrain from using these words as nouns to identify particular conditions or specific persons. Our religious doctrine dictates this usage. 


A quarter century later, perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Elder Holland’s recent anti-gay speech to the BYU faculty is his inability to say words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “transgender.” Instead, he referred to “those who live with this same-sex challenge.” Elder Holland’s homophobic dog-whistle is painfully familiar to survivors of the Mormons traumatizing “pray-the-gay-away” preaching. 

Galileo before the Inquisition

One tragic irony of the Mormon’s multi-decade campaign against LGBT dignity and equality:  the Brethren were halfway to the truth all along. Here’s the next sentence from Dallin Oak’s 1996 sermon:

It is wrong to use these words to denote a condition, because this implies that a person is consigned by birth to a circumstance in which he or she has no choice. 

You can find similar statements from Spencer W. Kimball, Boyd K. Packer, and every other Mormon priesthood leader who has offered his non-expert opinion about the scientific basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2021, the rest of us recognize these traits are essential and immutable aspects of individual identity.

As Galileo pointed out four centuries ago, sometimes the way to see the truth is to stop thinking you’re the center of the universe. It took 359 years before the Vatican hierarchy finally admitted Galileo was right and they were wrong. Hopefully it won’t take that long for someone in Salt Lake to embrace God’s love and recognize the truth about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. 

On the left: Copernicus and Galileo's heliocentric model of the solar system
On the right: what it takes to live a lie

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