Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series of in-depth stories and analyses dissecting and understanding religious liberty in America and the place of faith in the public square.
SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers from opposing parties rarely partner on bills affecting faith in the public square, according to a Deseret News analysis. The polarization that defines today's politics has poisoned faith-related policy debates, especially legislative battles over legal protections for LGBT and religious Americans.
"Today, few people think of someone on the other side as someone to try to work with. That's your enemy," said Kentucky Rep. Gerald Watkins, D-McCracken.
Bipartisan sponsorship was a feature of only 19 of the 140 state-level, religion-related bills before state legislatures this year, including 10 seeking to provide nondiscrimination protections for members of the LGBT community, the Deseret News found. An additional eight bills were put forward by legislative committees comprised of Democrats and Republicans and don't list the specific legislators calling for passage.
Bipartisanship doesn't guarantee good legislation, but it does help smooth community tensions, according to legislators involved in rare compromise efforts. Partisan, lopsided bills lead to unhappy constituents and long legal battles, rather than meaningful solutions to conflict, they said.
Moving forward, state lawmakers must focus on working together to address people's needs, not winning short-term battles, said Utah Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who has reached out to legislators across the country to encourage compromise.
"If you can't find balance, you're not going to find something that's lasting," he said.
The legislative landscape
Watkins sponsored one of the 19 bipartisan bills: HB372 in Kentucky, which seeks to prevent the state from penalizing — by revoking a license or cancelling a contract — religious organizations or individuals that refuse to participate in a same-sex marriage. He and a fellow Democrat were outnumbered by Republicans 45-2 on the list of sponsors, but Watkins didn't hesitate to get involved.
"While I am 100 percent opposed to discrimination against any group or person, you've got to strike a balance and you can't trample on the religious liberty rights of business owners," he said.
Watkins admitted that being in Kentucky made his support for religiously based service refusals less controversial than it would have been in other states. Many Democratic lawmakers there hold the same views on social issues as their Republican counterparts, he noted.
"It's easier for us to compromise and work together because of the shared philosophical background of most of the state," he said. "Everybody goes to church."
Elsewhere, it's uncommon for Democrats to sponsor bills creating new protections for conservative, religious residents. Instead, these legislators focus on protections for members of the LGBT community, leaving religious freedom bills to Republicans, said Tim Schultz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, a religious freedom advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
He fears this partisan gap has unintended consequences for both sides.
“If you believe religious freedom is just for Republicans, it puts religious freedom in a very tenuous place," he told the Deseret News last month.
The lack of bipartisanship troubles many religious freedom activists, including representatives of Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal advocacy organization involved in high-profile Supreme Court cases and state-level legislation.
"Religious freedom should have broad support. Every American should be free to live and work consistent with their beliefs, without fear of unjust government punishment," explained a statement provided to the Deseret News by the organization.
Watkins blames national party leadership for the lack of bipartisanship nationwide, adding that it's becoming increasingly difficult to be a moderate Republican or moderate Democrat.
"I think the problem in America today is the two parties, at least at the national level, have leadership that's too extreme," he said.
The widening gap between the two parties has disrupted the legislative process, leading to lopsided laws that are vulnerable to future changes and legal challenges, Adams said.
"Anytime somebody overreaches, anytime somebody feels disadvantaged, it's going to be litigated," he said.
And litigation leaves little room for balance, he added.
"The courts don't have the ability to find compromise, to find a way to protect each person equally. They simply have to say they agree or disagree," Adams said.
Where to go from here
Adams was one of the lead sponsors of SB296, one of the two bills that made up the 2015 Utah Compromise, which provided new nondiscrimination protections for members of the LGBT community and religious objectors to same-sex marriage.
All of the official sponsors for SB296 and HB322 were Republican — fewer than 20 of Utah's 104 state legislators are Democrat — but the effort was bipartisan in spirit, involving prominent religious leaders, as well as representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign and Equality Utah.
"What we did was add additional protections for everyone. That's what brought everyone to the table," Adams said.
His experiences at that bargaining table taught him that balanced legislation is better for everyone. That's why he's been visiting other state legislatures to put in a good word for bipartisanship.
"I always thought that if I protected only one side, I could protect what was best for my views. But the reality is that you never know when the tables are going to turn," Adams said.
But bipartisanship isn't a cure-all for clashes between protections for the LGBT and religious communities, wrote Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow for The Heritage Foundation who has been critical of bills like Utah's, in an email.
At the end of the day, what matters is the content of the bill, not the mix of people who sponsored it, he said.
"Sometimes bipartisanship will lead to better legislation, but sometimes it won't. It's not a universal, abstract virtue. When it will lead to good outcomes and when it will lead to bad outcomes depends on the political culture, the nature of the parties, the issue being legislated, the extent of polarization, the role of special-interest groups and quite a bit more," Anderson said.
Others do assign unique value to bipartisan sponsorship, such as West Virginia Del. Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha. Bipartisanship helps people from different political parties move forward together after major societal or legal shifts, she said.
"It's valuable because it helps people solve problems, rather than getting caught up in whether something is a Republican or a Democratic issue," she added.
This year, Lane co-sponsored HB2670, which seeks to prevent sexual orientation-based discrimination in housing, hiring and places of public accommodation, with nine Democrats, because she doesn't believe conflict over LGBT rights can be resolved unless people move beyond party allegiances.
"It has to be addressed in a bipartisan way in order to make it effective and to start people thinking about the issue in a different light," Lane said.
The only LGBT rights bill to pass in 2018, HB1319 in New Hampshire, had bipartisan sponsorship. The law will prevent discrimination based on gender identity in housing, hiring and places of public accommodation.
"When bills expanding equality for LGBT people pass, a broad coalition including LGBT people, business leaders, faith leaders and Republicans is often involved," said Rose Saxe, deputy director of the LGBT & HIV Project, a division of the ACLU.
If more lawmakers work together moving forward, religious freedom protections and LGBT rights laws will enjoy more public support, lawmakers said.
"If you can find amicable or reasonable solutions, you can reduce polarization. That's what legislators should do," Adams said.
Everyone is better off when religious freedom protections are strong, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom statement.
"Because civil liberties travel together and religious freedom benefits everyone regardless of their beliefs, broad, bipartisan support for ensuring American's fundamental freedoms should be common sense," it read.