by Peter Sprigg
September 12, 2019
Concerns about religious liberty are one of the chief obstacles to passage of “non-discrimination” laws that would make “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (“SOGI”) into protected categories at the local, state, and federal level. Only 20 of the 50 states have enacted SOGI protections for both employment and public accommodations, and a comprehensive (and radical) federal bill, the Equality Act (H.R. 5), has stalled in the Senate since its passage in May by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
Utah Rep. Ben McAdams, a Democrat who voted for the Equality Act, recently told that state’s Deseret News that he thinks the bill “still needs work”—and he supports a so-called “compromise” called “Fairness for All.” The theory is that both “LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights” and “religious liberty” could be protected by enacting a single bill that includes both SOGI protections and religious exemptions.
The model for “Fairness for All” proposals at the federal level is the “Utah compromise” that was adopted by that state’s legislature in 2015. It added SOGI protections to the state’s nondiscrimination laws regarding employment and housing (public accommodations were omitted), while creating exemptions for religious non-profit organizations and protections for some employee speech.
Unique factors in Utah—notably, the power and influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which endorsed the “compromise”—make it doubtful whether this approach could be replicated elsewhere. LGBT groups at the national level seem determined to press forward the existing Equality Act, which contains no religious liberty protections and explicitly strips away those that might be asserted under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Nevertheless, because some may be tempted to believe that such a “compromise” provides a “win-win” solution in the clash between LGBT rights and religious liberty, it is important to reiterate why we believe this would be a serious mistake.
First, the fundamental presumption behind “Fairness for All” is that there is a balance or symmetry between “rights” or “protections” for people who identify as LGBT and “rights” or “protections” for people of faith. This is a fallacy. The “free exercise” of religion is guaranteed by the First Amendment, but there is no provision of the Constitution that references sexual orientation or gender identity.
The fundamental rights found in the U.S. Constitution—such as freedom of speech and the press and the free exercise of religion—do not place any limits on the actions of private individuals and organizations; on the contrary, they protect such actions against interference by the government. “Civil rights” laws that bar discrimination in employment and public accommodations, however, do not merely limit the government; they place a restriction upon the action of private entities (such as small businesses) in carrying out their private activity.
There is a place for non-discrimination laws (especially regarding characteristics that are clearly inborn, involuntary, and immutable, such as race). However, the burden of proof in every case must rest on those who seek to increase the number of categories or characteristics protected under such laws. That’s because the extension of laws against private discrimination is less a “win-win situation” than a “zero-sum” game. When one (such as an employment applicant) wins more protection, another (the employer) actually loses a corresponding measure of freedom.
The most publicized cases highlighting the clash between LGBT non-discrimination laws and religious liberty in recent years have involved businesses in the wedding industry that are owned and operated by Christians who prefer not to participate in the celebration of same-sex weddings. (Although one such business, Colorado’s Masterpiece Cakeshop, won an important decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, the decision was on narrow grounds and did not settle this area of the law.) It is not clear that religious liberty protections in any proposed compromise legislation would protect these businesses.
The wedding industry cases are by no means the only context in which this conflict arises, however. There have been cases challenging the right of Christian adoption agencies to decline to place children with same-sex couples; cases where Christian counseling students were punished for declining to affirm and support homosexual relationships; and cases in which Christian employees of government agencies were fired for privately expressing disapproval of homosexual conduct. It is not clear that any of them would be protected by such “Fairness for All” proposals.
Further, “gender identity” protections would undermine the rights of organizations and businesses to set dress and grooming standards or have separate private spaces (e.g., in bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, dormitories, etc.) for biological men and women. These rights stand ready to be compromised by “Fairness for All” proposals.
Family Research Council believes that combining religious liberty and special privileges for sexual orientation and/or gender identity (SOGI) is unsustainable, for three primary reasons.
1) It is wrong, in principle, to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories, because they are unlike historically protected categories such as race. Historically, protections were reserved for characteristics that are inborn, involuntary, immutable, and innocuous, such as race, and/or in the U.S. Constitution (such as religion). None of these criteria apply to the choice to engage in homosexual conduct or the choice to present one’s self as the opposite of one’s biological sex.
2) There is no religious exemption that would be acceptable to LGBT activists and would also be adequate to fully protect against all the likely threats to religious freedom.
3) Non-discrimination laws always implicate moral beliefs. They send the message that it is morally wrong to disapprove of homosexual or transgender conduct. For such laws to be endorsed by citizens who believe that it is morally wrong to engage in homosexual or transgender conduct is a logical contradiction.
What would truly reflect “Fairness for All” would be to reject SOGI laws containing special privileges, and allow real religious liberty—the freedom to hold to one’s personal beliefs and to act on them without government interference or coercion.