Saly Lake City — The Mormon Church has staked a deeper claim to middle ground in American society, advocating for compromises between protecting religious liberties and prohibiting discrimination, and criticizing Kentucky clerk Kim Davis for refusing to license gay marriages.
A speech Tuesday by Mormon leader Dallin H. Oaks marked another landmark moment in the conservative religion's transformation from a faith that frowned on gays and lesbians to one becoming more welcoming and compassionate, albeit in small steps that may seem nominal to outsiders.
"We may have cultural differences, but we should not have 'culture wars,'" Oaks said. "On the big issues ... both sides should seek a balance, not a total victory."
As with the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis, the conservative Mormons are trying to assert a softer position in society, while holding firm inside the church to its own doctrines against gay marriage and homosexual activity.
The Mormons chose Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that guides The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to give the speech, the most detailed yet reflecting the new approach to what Mormons call "same-gendered attraction." He brings credibility as a former Utah Supreme Court judge who also once served as a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren on the U.S. Supreme Court, church officials said.
The discourse was delivered to a closed gathering of judges and clergy in Sacramento, California. A copy of the prepared remarks was provided to The Associated Press.
Also read: Clerk who rejected licenses for gays says she met with pope
After the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether in Rowan County, Kentucky rather than comply with rulings she said violate her personal religious beliefs. She was released from jail after members of her staff agreed to comply with a federal judge's order to issue licenses to all legally eligible couples in her stead. The deputy clerks removed her name from the forms.
Davis, who spent five days in jail, has been embraced as a hero to many conservative Christians who see her actions as a litmus test for religious liberty in an increasingly secular culture. But other religious opponents of gay marriage are divided about whether her approach helps or hurts the cause for religious liberty.
Once she was released, she further altered the forms to declare they were being issued under a federal court order.
The American Civil Liberties Union now wants U.S. District Judge David Bunning to order Davis and her employees to reissue the licenses without alterations, and to fine her or appoint someone to replace her for this purpose if she continues to refuse. The judge has yet to rule.
Oaks declared himself devoted to both church doctrine and the laws of a democratic society. But when conflicts between them arise and are decided, citizens of a democracy must follow court rulings, he said.
Oaks didn't call out Davis by name, but his reference was clear, and confirmed by church officials.
Davis' attorney Mat Staver, fired back at the Mormon Church. He said in an emailed statement that "any attempt to punish a person for the exercise of conscience is sinful."
"Kim Davis has a right to represent her county as an elected official without violating her deeply held religious convictions," Staver said. "Of all religious denominations the Mormon Church should understand the importance of protecting religious freedom. How sad the church officials have forgotten their history and the importance of protecting conscientious objectors."