SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A former Salt Lake City police officer who was put on leave and later resigned after he objected to riding in the motorcycle brigade at the front of last year's gay pride parade is speaking out against what he believes was a violation of his religious liberties.
Eric Moutsos, 33, said Wednesday that he was unfairly branded a bigot despite simply asking to swap roles and work a different part of the parade in June 2014. Moutsos, a Mormon, said he felt uncomfortable doing what he considered celebratory circles with other motorcycles leading the parade because of his religious views. But he said he never refused to work the parade.
"It looks like we and I are in support of this parade," Moutsos said he told superiors about being in the motor brigade. "I said I would feel the same way if this was an abortion parade. I would feel the same way if it was a marijuana parade."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Moutsos said he's coming out with his story now to be a voice in a national debate about how to safeguard religious beliefs while protecting LGBT rights.
Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said he stands behind his decision to put Moutsos on leave, saying he will not tolerate officers allowing personal biases to interfere with their work.
"It has nothing to do with religious freedom, that has to do with the hatred of those individuals and what the parade stands for, which is about unity and coming together," Burbanks said. "How can I then send that officer out to a family fight that involves a gay couple or a lesbian walking down the street?"
Moutsos said he felt compelled to come forward with his story after months of silence after he listened to leaders with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announce a campaign last month calling for new laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination while also protecting people who assert their religious beliefs.
Moutsos issued a six-page statement through his attorney Monday that didn't have his name. But he decided to reveal his identity in an interview he gave to the Deseret News and KSL-TV that came out Tuesday night.
"It is unquestionably my duty as a police officer to protect everyone's right to hold a parade or other event, but is it also my duty to celebrate everyone's parade?" Moutsos wrote in the statement.
Several state legislatures, including Utah, are considering anti-LGBT discrimination laws alongside measures to safeguard religious liberties. Moutsos hasn't been invited to talk to lawmakers, but he said he would testify if asked.
"We can 100-percent disagree and still 100-percent love," Moutsos said. "I hate that we're labeled in this way that is so divisive."
Moutsos' life changed dramatically in the days leading up to last summer's gay pride parade. He had been talking with his bosses about resolving his objections while still helping out during the parade when he was informed that he was being put on leave for discrimination — a move that shocked him.
The story became public after police issued a news release saying an unnamed officer had been put on leave for refusing the gay pride parade assignment. The department said it does not tolerate bias and bigotry, and it does not allow personal beliefs to enter into whether an officer will accept an assignment.
Burbank said it is inappropriate for Moutsos to come out now with his story. Moutsos forfeited his right to defend himself during a police internal investigation when he resigned before they ever talked with him, Burbank said.
Moutsos, a married father of four, said he has gay friends and family and has no problem with 95 percent of their life choices. He said he is offended by the notion that he would treat gays and lesbians differently as an officer.
Moutsos has since found work with another police agency in the state. But he said the last six months were difficult and depressing for him and his family.
His attorney, Bret Rawson, said they have not made a decision about a possible lawsuit over the handling of the situation.
Moutsos acknowledged that he could have been more diplomatic in his conversations with superiors. But he doesn't regret asserting his beliefs.
"I used to be quite the hellion back in my day, and I found what I believe is God kind of later in my life," Moutsos said. "Now, I have such a strong, deep faith in Him . . . He and I love people, but I do not advocate certain things in people's lives. In this parade, there were messages that I don't advocate."