US civil rights law prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of characteristics such as race and gender. Prohibited discrimination can take the form of disparate treatment or disparate impact. Disparate treatment is easy to spot: it is simply treating members of different groups differently. For example, an employer who refuses to hire women would be liable under disparate treatment. Disparate impact is typically more difficult to see. It arises when a test or procedure the employer uses has the effect of discriminating against members of one group versus another. An employer who gives applicants a speech test that is scored by software that picks up lower pitches better than higher pitches might be liable under disparate impact, as women would likely perform worse on the test. (Employers are allowed to discriminate, though, if they can show that the characteristic they are using to select employees is a requirement to do the job.)
I think the concepts of disparate treatment and disparate impact are useful for talking about how the Church discriminates. In using these terms, I’m not suggesting that members are like employees; I’m just borrowing the terms to have an easy way to refer to different types of discrimination.
In the recent Face to Face broadcast for young single adults, Elder Holland was asked about gay people who don’t feel like they fit in in the Church. Here is part of his response. (The question begins at about 1:13 in the broadcast recording.)
Now, when that attraction exists, what we ask for those inclined to a homosexual feeling is exactly what we ask for those with heterosexual feelings (I’m talking to a young single adult group), and that is: be faithful. Be clean. Be chaste. . . . We’re just talking about a single standard of devotion to the Lord and keeping the commandments.
This is an argument about gay people that has been used a lot. The rules are the same for everybody. The law of chastity requires everyone to abstain from sex outside of marriage. Anybody is free to marry a person of the opposite sex.
In terms of types of discrimination, it appears that Elder Holland is trying to avoid bringing up disparate impact. He doesn’t want to acknowledge the reality that even if there is a single rule everyone has to follow, the effect of this rule varies dramatically depending on a person’s sexual orientation. To state the obvious, dating people and ultimately marrying a person of the opposite sex is likely something straight people look forward to and enjoy, but for gay people it will be stressful and difficult to say the least. I think it makes even more sense to argue that there isn’t a single standard, because it allows and encourages straight people to enter romantic relationships with people they’re attracted to, but it discourages and forbids gay people from doing so. Even if we set that argument aside, though, and accept Elder Holland’s claim that it’s a single standard, it’s still clear that the single standard has disparate impact on gay versus straight people. He doesn’t want to acknowledge this, though. Instead he wants to go back and talk about (non-)disparate treatment. Celibate single gay people can do the same things in the Church that celibate single straight people can. So there’s no discrimination. Everyone is treated the same.
It makes sense why Elder Holland would do this. Discrimination is generally seen as less acceptable than it used to be. People and organizations that openly discriminate are looked down on. So I can see why Elder Holland to want to frame the issue in terms of disparate treatment, where he can argue that there is no discrimination, and avoid getting into disparate impact, where there obviously is discrimination.
Church leaders’ concern with not being seen as discriminatory can also be seen in cases where the Church does practice disparate treatment. For example, take the female priesthood ban: men and boys are ordained, but women and girls are not. In spite of this obvious difference, there are statements like this one in the Mormon Newsroom FAQ that fall all over themselves trying to show how the discrimination isn’t really discrimination:
From the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints women have played an integral role in the work of the Church. While worthy men hold the priesthood, worthy women serve as leaders, counselors, missionaries, teachers, and in many other responsibilities— they routinely preach from the pulpit and lead congregational prayers in worship services. They serve both in the Church and in their local communities and contribute to the world as leaders in a variety of professions. Their vital and unique contribution to raising children is considered an important responsibility and a special privilege of equal importance to priesthood responsibilities.
It’s clear that even in a situation where the Church is obviously practicing disparate treatment, it doesn’t want to be seen as discriminating. (Incidentally, I think part of the brilliance of Ordain Women’s Conference actions, where they asked to be admitted to priesthood session, was understanding and exploiting this disconnect.)
I would rather that the Church not discriminate by disparate treatment or disparate impact. If Church leaders do want to continue with discriminating, though, I think it would be so much better if they acknowledged it rather than trying to downplay or trying to hide it. Women are perfectly able to see themselves and their mothers and sisters and daughters not getting ordained while their fathers, brothers, and sons are. Gay people are perfectly able to see that what’s being asked of them with the law of chastity is worlds apart from what’s being asked of straight people. The rest of us are perfectly able to see this discrimination too. When Church leaders are the only ones who refuse to acknowledge its existence, they look like they’re being intentionally obtuse.