LGBT rights, religious freedom and the Utah miracle
March 24, 2015
By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment
Whatever your faith or sexual orientation, what happened in Utah on March 12 should make you proud to be an American.
That’s the day Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed into law groundbreaking legislation — Senate Bill 296 — protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment while also providing exemptions for religious institutions and protections for religious speech.
The quintessential American moment came at a press conference earlier in the month when Utah legislators, LGBT activists and — most importantly — leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — stood together to announce support for the common ground agreement that is now state law.
A breakthrough of this magnitude required months of difficult and complex negotiations. Despite deep political and religious divisions, people of goodwill built bridges of trust and found a way forward based on what leaders of the Mormon Church called the principle of "fairness for everyone."
In this legislation, everyone means everyone: Transgender people are protected, an issue that has blocked agreement in other states.
This is a proud moment for many Utahans who clearly hope that their small, often misunderstood state will be a model for other areas of the country.
One of the bill's lead sponsors, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, spoke for many when he said at the press conference: "Like in Utah's history, when the final, golden spike was driven in Utah, uniting the west and east coasts of the United States, we hope today's announcement will drive a spike in the false idea that LGBT rights are in conflict with religious freedom."
The precise language of the Utah's law, of course, is not a one-size-fits-all solution readily transferable to other states. Existing civil rights laws and religious freedom exemptions vary from state to state, so any recipe for compromise in other places will require a somewhat different mix of protections and exemptions.
Moreover, significant differences remain over questions concerning religious exemptions and same-sex marriage (now legal in Utah after a federal court ruling).
After passing SB 296, the legislature enacted SB 297 with mostly non-controversial religious exemptions for clergy and religious organizations similar to those found in other states.
More contentious, however, is a provision in SB 297 guaranteeing same-sex couples access to marriage, but allowing local clerks to opt out of officiating at same-sex weddings for religious reasons as long someone else is available to solemnize the marriage. Gov. Herbert is expected to sign the bill.
Despite these caveats and remaining disagreements, the spirit of the Utah agreement — the willingness to seek a balance between nondiscrimination and religious freedom acceptable to people on all sides — can, and should be replicated elsewhere.
Unfortunately, lawmakers in Alabama, Georgia and other states are going in the opposite direction, rushing to pass "religious liberty" bills (in anticipation of a Supreme Court decision expected to favor same-sex marriage) without any counterweight proposals to protect LGBT people from discrimination.
This one-sided, shortsighted strategy pits religious liberty against equality — and will end by diminishing both.
By enacting SB 296, Utah got it right.
No one should be discriminated against in the workplace or denied housing because of sexual orientation. At the same time, religious institutions should be protected to practice their faith as long as that practice does not interfere with the rights of others.
By coming together to seek fairness for all while simultaneously respecting differences that are abiding and deep, Utah's leaders — civil and religious — have demonstrated that when we uphold our guiding principles of freedom and equality, America still works.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org