In Utah, lawmakers are considering whether to legalize discrimination in the name of protecting “religious liberty.” Last week, Rep. LaVar Christensen introduced HB322, the so-called “Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act.” This bill would effectively destroy Utah’s civil rights laws by establishing a new “exemption to otherwise generally applicable laws and a valid defense to claims of discrimination by others.” Similar bills are currently pending in the state legislatures of Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, South Dakota and West Virginia, and more are expected to be introduced in the coming year.
These proposals are a profound distortion of religious freedom. They would be a dangerous setback in the country’s recognition of civil rights, and we hope that our fellow Utahns and Americans will join us in rejecting them. When religious freedom is properly understood, it does not conflict with the recognition of civil rights. We can protect people from discrimination while protecting people’s religious liberties. In Utah — and in every state in this country — we already do. Because religious freedom is one of our country’s most cherished values, Americans have developed a widely shared understanding of what religious freedom means. Above all, the law protects our right to practice our faiths without fear of being thrown in jail, fired from our jobs, evicted from our homes or denied access to public accommodations.
Because these freedoms are so fundamental, they are already protected by existing laws. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from abridging the free exercise of religion, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 ban religious discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Similar protections exist in the constitutions and laws of all 50 states.
By the same token, Americans have developed a common understanding of what religious freedom does not mean. Religious freedom does not give us the freedom to do whatever we want, nor does it give us the right to harm others. It does not allow us to fire, evict or deny service to anyone who we happen to believe is a heretic or a sinner. That would be a perilous exception with no logical limit. It would allow each person to pick and choose which laws to follow, and it would allow judges to decide who qualifies for religious exemptions. It would pose a grave threat to public safety, to the protection of civil rights and to the value of religious freedom itself.
When we speak about protecting religious freedom, it is important to remember that the United States is a country of many faiths. If we could all discriminate based on our own personal religious beliefs, then all manner of discrimination would be legalized — not only discrimination against LGBT people, but discrimination against all racial, ethnic and religious groups. Far from protecting religious freedom, we would be allowing employers, landlords and business owners to impose their personal religious beliefs on employees, renters and customers. Before long, everyone’s freedom would come under attack, and our free market would be reduced to a competition among prejudices. Without the traditional protections of our civil rights laws, we would be unable to prevent the resurgence of white supremacy, prejudice against Jews, Catholics, Mormons and Muslims — or indeed, prejudice against people of any kind.
During the civil rights era, segregationists sought to justify race discrimination in the name of God, and they sought religious exemptions from the country’s new civil rights laws. In 1959, a court in Virginia sentenced an interracial couple to one year in jail based on the judge’s belief that “Almighty God created the races white, black, white, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents ... [because] he did not intend for the races to mix.” In 1966, a restaurant owner in South Carolina claimed that he had a constitutional right to refuse to serve black patrons, based on his “sacred religious belief” that integration was sinful. Today, these practices are universally prohibited.
Not all Americans agree about what is moral or sinful, but the vast majority agree that no one should be fired, evicted or denied public services simply because they are LGBT. Even as we maintain the freedom to practice our faiths, we have mustered the courage and the common sense to reject discrimination against LGBT people. That is the only kind of liberty that our laws can protect — not one person’s religious liberty to discriminate against others, but the equal liberty of one and all.
Troy Williams is the executive director of Equality Utah, a nonprofit organization working to secure equal protections for LGBT Utahns. Clifford J. Rosky is the board chairman of Equality Utah and a University of Utah law professor.