Utah officer defends his objections to riding at head of gay pride parade

Utah officer defends his objections to riding at head of gay pride parade
Former Salt Lake City police officer Eric Moutsos 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 in Salt Lake City. He says he offered to work elsewhere at the parade. (Scott G Winterton / AP)

Eric Moutsos wants you to understand this: He's no bigot. He's just a religious man, he says, with some personal convictions against homosexual behavior.

The former Salt Lake City policeman says he has many LGBT friends. He just did not want to ride as a uniformed motorcycle escort in the front of last year's gay pride parade.


And that conviction, the devout Mormon and father of four says, prompted him to quit the department after being placed on leave over the incident.

"I love gay people," the 33-year-old told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday. "I love them like I love humanity. I just did not agree with some of the messages in that parade."

Now Moutsos finds himself amid a PR firestorm — trading verbal shots with Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, who supports the decision to put Moutsos on leave, declaring he won't tolerate officers allowing personal bias to interfere with their work.

Moutsos has hired a lawyer and is contemplating a lawsuit over what he says is a violation of his religious liberties, saying he has no problem becoming a socially conservative voice in a national debate about how to safeguard religious beliefs while protecting LGBT rights.

In June, Moutsos was assigned with several other motorcycle officers to ride at the front of the annual Utah Pride Parade in Salt Lake City. They were to perform what he described as celebratory circles. He told his superiors that his religious views made him uncomfortable doing something that suggested he supported the cause, which he does not.

In a six-page public statement released this week, he says his superiors refused his request to swap roles and work a different part of the event. "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?" he wrote.

Mostsos told The Times: "I asked my supervisor, 'What if an African American officer didn't want to ride in front of a KKK parade?' And he said he'd have to do it. That's when I knew in my heart it was wrong."

The department put him on leave a few days before the parade. The department's action made the news, but his identity was not made public at the time.

Moutsos has his critics, including Utah's American Civil Liberties Union.

"As a government official, you need to serve everyone; you can't use your personal beliefs as a way to pick and choose," Executive Director Karen McCreary told the Times. "Maybe he should consider another line of work if he can't, with equanimity, serve everyone in the public sphere."

Chief Burbanks also told reporters: "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 counters that he has worked police security at previous gay and lesbian events.

He says he also made the local news in 2009 in his handling of an incident in which two gay men were detained and handcuffed by security after they were found kissing on Mormon church property at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

"I was the officer who responded on the scene and the first thing I did was take off those handcuffs. One was intoxicated and so I was within my rights to arrest him," he recalled. "But I talked with them for 20 minutes. We shook hands. They thanked me for my handling of the matter. I felt for them."


A local headline, Moutsos added, read, "Officer's report sides with gay couple."

Moutsos says he has received support from Mormon Church officials and fellow police officers  nationwide for acting on his convictions. "The reality of law enforcement is this: You lose many of your 1st Amendment rights when you become a cop.

"When I swore to support and protect the Constitution, that includes the constitution of myself."

Moutsos says he isn't sure what he'll do next. A country singer, he once tried to make a career in Nashville and in a telephone interview broke into a few smooth-sounding bars of the Willie Nelson hit "Pancho and Lefty."

"Living on the road my friend

"Was gonna keep you free and clean

"Now you wear your skin like iron

"Your breath as hard as kerosene."

His final comments on the controversy could make for a lyric in a country song: "We can still love each other and disagree with each other."

Follow @jglionna for news from across the country.