SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Congressman Chris Stewart is sponsoring legislation that would expand LGBTQ and religious rights at the federal level, and he’s not the only link between the bill and the Beehive State.

The Fairness for All Act, introduced Friday in the House of Representatives, likely would not exist if Utah hadn’t passed a similar measure in 2015 and showed it’s possible to protect people of faith and the LGBTQ community at the same time, the bill’s supporters said.

“Because of reconciliation work that took place here, we’ve seen a template for how we can move forward together,” said Tyler Deaton, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, an LGBTQ rights group, during a Monday afternoon press conference at the Utah State Capitol.

However, Utah’s push to adjust nondiscrimination protections also showed how difficult it can be to make such changes, according to Utah Sen. J. Stuart Adams, who co-sponsored the 2015 law. Stewart and the rest of the Fairness for All coalition will face many obstacles in their pursuit of a more peaceful future, he said.

“Forging compromise in this area is hard work. Many will say it can’t be done,” Adams said.

Seeking balance

For those unfamiliar with Utah, it may seem like an unlikely state to lead the way on anything having to do with LGBTQ rights. Republicans dominate the state Legislature, and many policymakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which promotes a traditional sexual ethic.

Yet state leaders previously had proven they could tackle hard issues surrounding immigration and didn’t shy away from an opportunity to better protect gay and transgender residents nearly five years ago. They were careful to ensure that new nondiscrimination protections didn’t harm members of the religious community, said Adams, who is president of the Utah Senate.

“Religious freedom and LGBTQ rights can coexist. Utah demonstrated that to the nation,” he said.

Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, right, listen to Utah Rep. Chris Stewart speak during a press conference to introduce the Fairness for All Act at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The Utah law, SB296, banned sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination in the areas of housing and hiring, while also addressing the conflicts such a change could create for religious institutions. It aimed to ensure that people of faith could still live according to their beliefs and respond to the needs of the LGBTQ community.

The Fairness for All Act applies this approach to the federal level and expands its reach. It would outlaw LGBTQ discrimination in most areas of public life, including many types of retail transactions, plus protect the religiously affiliated schools, nonprofits and other organizations that might face lawsuits as a result of the legal change.

The act “has the spirit of the Utah law,” said Tim Schultz, who is president of the 1st Amendment Partnership and part of the coalition of legal experts and civil rights advocates promoting the Fairness for All Act.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday that he’s “flattered” but not surprised by Utah’s role in the new legislation. The state has repeatedly shown that it’s possible to privilege dignity and respect over conflict.

“We lead the nation when it comes to collaboration, cooperation and finding solutions to difficult problems,” he said.

Conflict ahead

Herbert was joined at the press conference by many members of the Fairness for All coalition, which has been working on the bill for more than three years. Participants included Schultz, Deaton, Melissa Reid from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Elder Ronald A. Rasband of The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Elder Jack Gerard of the church; Shirley Hoogstra from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Stanley Carlson-Thies from the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and Rep. Stewart, the bill’s sponsor.

During his remarks, Adams celebrated the Fairness for All coalition’s hard work and willingness to dream big on a national stage. However, he also warned the bill’s supporters that plenty of hard work lies ahead.

“I’m not quite sure (Stewart) knows what he’s in for,” he said. “He’ll be criticized and attacked from all sides.”

Already, prominent LGBTQ rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign and ACLU have come out against the bill, claiming it offers far too many religious exemptions. Some religious groups, on the other hand, argued that it would deeply undermine existing religious freedom protections.

Stewart told reporters Monday that he’s prepared for “hand-to-hand political combat.” He plans to meet with lawmakers to try to convince them of the societal benefits that come along with a fairness for all approach.

The Utah policy’s track record will help Stewart make his case, Adams said. It’s nearly eliminated related legal disputes.

“It’s hard to argue with success,” Adams said.

It’s also hard to argue with widespread community acceptance, Deaton said, citing recent research showing that more than three-quarters of Utahns (77%) are supportive of broad LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections.

“Who would have predicted seven or eight years ago that Utah would be tied with Vermont for supporting (such) protections?” Deaton said.

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What you need to know about a new bill that tries to balance religious freedom and LGBTQ rights
Why Utah Rep. Chris Stewart and a coalition of LGBTQ and religious groups support ‘Fairness for all’ (and why others don’t)

The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, who serves as executive director of Parity, a national nonprofit addressing the intersection of religion and LGBTQ rights, is hopeful the bill’s initial detractors will recognize the value of collaboration and get involved in efforts to refine it.

“Is this the perfect bill? Not yet. But its intention is,” she said.

She, like other supporters of the fairness for all approach, sees the legislation as an important step in the right direction, as well as a reason for hope during an era of intense polarization.

“Many today are understandably concerned about increased political divisions within our society. The kind of judicious approach that’s on display here today, the kind of cooperation and collaborative spirit, should give us all a little more hope,” said Elder Gerard.