Hatch says he was trying to praise gay activists
Politics » He said, 'Gays and lesbians don't pay tithing, their religion is politics.'
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Sen. Orrin Hatch wants the gay community to know this: He meant it as a compliment.

The Utah Republican is drawing fire from gay-rights groups and others after telling a town hall meeting earlier this month that "gays and lesbians don't pay tithing, their religion is politics."

Hatch made the comment in St. George while urging Republicans to band together like unions, environmentalists, personal-injury lawyers and gay-rights activists do for Democratic candidates.

"Many gay people are vociferous Democrats who are willing to pony up money for politics. That's something I admire," Hatch said this week. "I don't know how I could have been much more complimentary the way I said it."

The six-term U.S. senator said he was trying to motivate the crowd to be active in politics and was using those groups as examples. He said he wasn't trying to imply that people who are gay aren't religious.

"There are some very, very good gay people who are very religious who undoubtedly pay tithing," Hatch said. "That wasn't what I was talking about. I was talking about politics and praising them for getting involved. I was making the point that they don't just stand on the side, they actually support their Democratic candidates with their money."

Hatch said his comments were taken out of context. "That was a distortion of what I said."

David Melson, executive director of Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons, said Hatch has done "some great things, but I think there probably is some bias there."

"If Senator Hatch is rewording his statement or apologizing," Melson said, "we're certainly accepting of that apology."

Melson, who is gay and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said Hatch may have been playing to the audience -- or at least goaded into it -- because southern Utah tends to be more conservative.

"Town hall meetings can sometimes bring out emotions or words or thoughts that one would probably not utter in a controlled situation," Melson said. "I doubt very much he would have made the same comment if he were speaking in Salt Lake City."

tburr@sltrib.com