Editor’s note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News series featuring diverse voices on religious freedom.

I’m staking out here an unusual and unpopular position to take, especially for a lesbian — religious liberty needs to be recognized first in order to secure the well-being of sexual minorities.

Given the level of polarization in this country, one might think that to be for religious liberty you must be against nondiscrimination laws. You may worry that, if Americans have the right to educate their children according to their religious beliefs and not according to civil rights laws, then gay students will be ostracized or made to feel inferior.

I don’t dispute those concerns. 

As a lesbian in a long-term relationship who had two kids in a public school in a conservative town, I have firsthand experience with religious-based intolerance. Yet, what I discovered is that strong differences of opinion do not preclude mutual respect. 

In the early 1990s, Vermont was deeply divided on the question of civil unions. My neighbor, a minister in an evangelical church, was active in the Take Back Vermont movement, a grassroots opposition to Vermont’s civil union laws. He self-published pamphlets, illustrated with Christian families, under attack from sacrilegious politicians. I worked with his daughter at a small liberal arts college just up the road. When I told her that I was studying natural law and the Spanish Inquisition, she said, “Oh, you should talk to my father. He loves St. Thomas Aquinas.”

I jumped at the chance.

What you shouldn’t forget when following battles between religious freedom and gay rights

And so we met. Nature, he said, made man and woman so that they could procreate. Nature, I argued, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, is perfected by grace. “Consider my life before I met my partner Alison. Isn’t her presence in my life an act of grace?” We both agreed on this: Grace was beyond anything humans could imagine.

Not too long after one of our energetic disputes, my minister neighbor published a most astonishing pamphlet. At the end of his solemn and scripture-based concerns about gay marriage, he included a generous description of our outside wedding ceremony. Yes, he was against same-sex marriage, but he also clearly cared about “the girls” living on the far bank of the river. Those two positions did not have to cancel each other out.

Grace was that amazing.

But it’s not just the mysteries of grace that can explain the inclusion of a lesbian wedding snapshot in a Take Back Vermont pamphlet. That pamphlet is a model of citizenship as laid out in the First Amendment. The framers gave precedence to religious liberty, even before the right to free speech. They understood that before we speak, publish, assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, we each need to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. My neighbor did not abandon his moral compass to recognize that Alison and I were following ours.

The idea that multiple, competing moralities can (and need to) coexist in a pluralistic society is still a radical idea, historically speaking. Since Moses, the word at the helm was that the multitude needed a single moral authority to keep them in line. Without a divinely recognized arbiter, the masses would run off in a thousand directions, espousing a thousand heresies. Who could rule such a people? England followed a similar course when Henry VIII broke bonds with the Holy Roman Empire and created a national church. The monasteries were confiscated by the crown. Anyone who claimed to be following a higher law than the king’s decree would find himself permanently silenced by maiming or by execution. Order would be maintained by mandating what was right and what was wrong.

The First Amendment prohibits this political strategy. Not only is Congress barred from establishing a theocracy, it cannot silence any type of religious expression. Competing notions of right and wrong, the bane of theocrats, are protected by the government.

And now we see just how high the bar of citizenship really is. By allowing a flourishing of individual consciences and a cacophony of churches, the framers forced us to be more magnanimous, more thoughtful and more considerate than we ever could be as subjects of a theocracy. The framers believed that citizens, endowed with greater freedoms, could treat their religious adversaries with forbearance and mutual respect. From time to time, history proved them wrong, as religious minorities (including the Latter-day Saints) suffered political persecution. 

But that doesn’t diminish the inherent wisdom of these freedoms. Consider what happened in Utah in 2015. 

After years of hostility, a group of conservative lawmakers and LGBT activists were able to arrive at an agreement that increased the tolerance and forbearance muscles of everyone. Known as the “Utah Compromise,” the Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments expanded nondiscrimination laws to sex, sexual orientation and gender identity, and exempted religious organizations from following those laws when they violated a fundamental teaching of the faith. Yes, given the teachings of their faith about marriage, Brigham Young University could deny housing to a same-sex couple. At the same time, businesses in the state could no longer fire workers for speaking their minds or expressing their values on political or religious topics outside of the workplace.

In a recent Deseret Magazine essay, Jonathan Rauch describes the Utah Compromise as a “miracle.” Not only did two political antagonists make space for each other, they both felt empowered by the new legislation. “We found a way forward,” Stuart Adams, a Republican state senator, said, “where each entity was given additional rights and protections, but no one’s core values were compromised.” His political counterpart agreed: “Getting this bill isn’t just getting this piece of paper,” then-state Sen. Jim Dabakis told a New York Times reporter. “It’s about changing the culture in Utah so we can have all these bedrock values we all believe in: respect, civility, and understanding each others’ perspective.” 

Meeting in the middle on religious and LGBTQ rights

For some of you, the Utah Compromise might seem like a failure. Why shouldn’t a same-sex couple be allowed the same housing privileges as a heterosexual married couple? 

Here’s my take on it: Without the protections of the First Amendment, the state would become the sole arbiter of morality. It could mandate trainings on how to be a good neighbor and then penalize those who do not comply. It could force Brigham Young University and other religious schools to treat LGBTQ students the same way they are treated at Evergreen State in Oregon. 

Forcing everyone to salute the rainbow flag does not promote mutual respect or intellectual curiosity. We might as well live under a theocracy.

By contrast, the First Amendment forces us to increase the space between our ears. In order to make sense of a religious tradition, you have to expand your mind.  And here’s the crux of the matter: You can only have that space if you displace fear with curiosity. Be honest about your fears: of pain, of death, of shame, counsels Montaigne, and you’ll become a freer person.

Instead of pitting religious liberties against gay rights, let’s try imagining how they can co-exist. Think of it as a cultural exchange program within a supervisory union. What could young gay activists learn from their religious, conservative peers? What counterarguments do religious students need to consider? I can imagine a reemergence of vibrant, civil debates across our schools and communities that displace fear with curiosity. Unlike the sterile volleys of the endless culture wars, we might actually be surprised.

But, of course, getting out of the intense conflict of the culture wars can seem even harder now. In the 1990s, I spoke to all my neighbors. In the 21st century, we are more likely to find our tribe online. The thought of speaking to the other side is not just frightening, it can feel like an act of betrayal to the cause.

The equality equation

Luckily, organizations like Braver Angels, Living Room Conversations and Heterodox Academy have laid out paths to mutual respect on our campuses and in our communities. People of different religious traditions and different political affiliations engage in structured conversations that help them to hear the other. As Braver Angels National Ambassador John Wood Jr. explains, “In the long run, we all have a desire to embody virtue, to set aside anger, hurt, and self-interest to pursue a more personally satisfying experience.” Participants agree to look for understanding over agreement, common ground over irreconcilable differences and shared principles over tribal loyalties. The very attributes needed to thrive in a pluralist democracy — tolerance, forbearance, civility — are as near as a Zoom call. 

The First Amendment asks us to be bigger than our fears and more than our sexual identity. Personally, I feel much more secure when I engage with my adversaries when I hear their hopes and fears. The idea that the state can make my adversaries treat me well is as reassuring as the claim that we can end terrorism through military action. Theocrats always tell us they are saving us from evil. It’s up to us to tell them otherwise.

“No, we’ve got this,” is easier to say when you’ve found respect for the other side.

Meg Mott is an emeritus professor from Marlboro College after teaching political theory and constitutional law for 20 years. She is currently town moderator in Putney, Vermont, and volunteers as a Braver Angels ambassador.