Religious Liberty in Utah: Eyes Wide Shut

Remember Mormons and Prop 8? Many mormons were among the big players and funders who rejected same-sex marriage. The Republican-controlled Utah legislature voted to protect housing and employment rights for LGBT people, as long as religious people are free to discriminate without sanction. Utah Governor Gary Herbert says he plans to sign it.

The head of Equality Utah was "ecstatic," according to the Salt Lake City Tribune, and called it a compromise. But are his eyes wide shut?

The Washington Blade reported in January that conservatives mobilized state-level campaigns across the country to use religious freedom to re-implement discrimination against LGBTQ people. States like Oklahoma, Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming are all somewhere along the journey toward freeing religious people to discriminate at will.

I am deeply concerned. In the name of progress and compromise, we may be setting ourselves up to be pawns in a global strategy of placing religious rights over all other constitutional and civil liberties.

Civil rights bills with sweeping exemptions for anyone with religious beliefs are not laws -- they are stepping stones. In Utah, this legislation was not just about Mormons and LGBT people. When the Republican Governor says "this is a model for the whole country," we had better ask why.

The plans for broadening this impact are clear from Republican Utah Senator Stuart Adams, who said, "If Utah can do this, in my opinion, it can be done anywhere else in the nation."

Conservatives are framing religious liberty as the main argument against LGBT marriage equality, against abortion -- and even against a secular government. They want to impose their religious beliefs in civic space and in the market and are exactly the type of people Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he and the other founders of this country prioritized freedom of religion.

Religious freedom emerged from a time when loyalty to kings and queens were indistinguishable from being faithful to a church. Archbishops whispered in the ears of rulers. Suffice it to say, we really don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. By the 1700's, Jefferson and others would not allow the conflation of church and state.

Today, there are swaths of conservatives who want to claim the United States as a "Christian Country." Many people -- both secular and religious -- are wary as contingents of Mormon, Catholic, and Evangelical conservatives form temporary alliances to resist civil rights for LGBT people and reproductive justice for women. Be assured that if any one of these groups ever consolidated enough political, religious, and economic power to enforce their brand of religion, the wars between these groups would begin in short order and bleed into every aspect of our country.

Fortunately, so far, we have maintained a balance between freedom of religion and freedom from the imposition of religion. That balance tipped in favor of faith groups in the '90s when many religions came together when government control of religion became too stringent and religions of many persuasions were feeling the pinch. In 1993, this coalition was able to pass The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act to establish a strongly articulated restriction on government interference in religion. The state was then required to show a "compelling reason" to limit religious expression.

Today, religions are asking for waivers from obeying laws that support equality and civil rights, not because they can demonstrate any harm to themselves, but because they believe their religion supersedes the Constitution.

If there was ever a compelling reason for the state to limit religious exemptions and public performance of "sincerely held religious beliefs," it is equality before the law. Review after review in the courts of our nation have determined that same-gender couples and their families are harmed by not applying the laws equally to all who want to be married and want to protect their families -- regardless of the gender of the couple.

We need new criteria today -- religions must show a compelling reason NOT to follow a law. They must show that they cannot possibly accommodate the core tenets of their faith and follow laws that are constitutional. Sincerely-held beliefs can be wrong -- even in light of core tenets of a person's faith, let alone constitutional laws. Equality before the law does not infringe on any core religious belief in any religion. All religions teach that others should be treated with kindness and respect.

As a Christian and the head of Metropolitan Community Churches -- founded when no church in the United States would welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer Christians -- I believe we must keep our eyes open. We must speak and act, before it is too late.

Too many people want to be judgmental, take away our rights, harm our families, and say God made them do it. This has to stop. Religious liberty is not an excuse to discriminate.