The time is right for Congress to pass a law protecting LGBTQ Americans from discrimination, and conservative faith groups should be among those pushing policymakers to get something done, according to political and religious leaders who gathered Monday for a virtual summit on religion and gay rights.
The discussion took aim at the idea that LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom cannot coexist. Panelists cast a vision of a world in which all Americans — gay or straight, religious or secular — feel safe being who they really are.
“We have to be aspirational enough to find answers that promote human flourishing,” said Justin Giboney, an attorney, political strategist and author.
That spirit has been missing from the gay rights debate in recent years, he and other summit participants said. Rather than look for opportunities to protect gay rights and religion at the same time, stakeholders have acted as if everyone must pick a side.
If you’re a conservative person of faith, this winner-take-all attitude should be concerning, argued the Rev. Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Christians are called not to win culture wars, but to defend the dignity of all human beings.
“Our most fundamental commitment is to affirm the image of God in all people,” he said.
LGBTQ rights advocates, on the other hand, need to recognize that lopsided policies that ignore the concerns of conservative religious groups rarely last, said the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, executive director of PARITY, an organization that serves LGBTQ youth.
“If LGBTQ folks get a law through and then it’s amended or chipped away at, then we’re back to where we were before,” said the Rev. Edmonds-Allen, who identifies as nonbinary and bisexual.
The causes of religious freedom and gay rights would both be better served by policies that reflect and protect the diversity of opinions Americans hold about religion, marriage, sexuality and gender, Giboney said.
“Religious liberty and LGBT rights are not mutually exclusive. There’s room for both if we’re willing to seek the best for each other and not just for ourselves and our tribe,” he said.
According to new research shared during Monday’s event, Americans would respond well to a policy that balances the needs and concerns of the LGBTQ community and conservative people of faith.
The survey found majority support for protecting gay rights in the workplace, health care settings and other contexts, and also for protecting faith-based organizations that uphold at-times controversial religious standards.
Three-quarters of respondents said that members of the LGBTQ community should have equal access to federally funded social services, like homeless shelters. At the same time, 55% of respondents said that religious colleges and universities should be able to receive federal funds even if they enforce faith-based codes of conduct.
Overall, 52% of Americans support a bipartisan solution for protecting religious freedom and promoting LGBTQ civil rights, according to the survey, which was fielded in July and included responses from 1,000 U.S. adults.
Policymakers should commit to work on such a bill before the 2022 election, summit participants said.
“This Congress has a rare opportunity to pass the largest expansion of civil rights since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” said Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership.
That opportunity comes from the fact that no LGBTQ rights legislation will make it through the Senate without bipartisan support, he and others said, noting that a bill needs 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.
In their current form, neither of the two pieces of LGBTQ rights legislation before Congress — the Equality Act and Fairness for All Act — can get 60 votes, Schultz added. But in the months ahead, it’s possible to imagine Republicans and Democrats working together to take the best ideas out of each bills and forge a compromise solution.
“This moment is what we’ve all been building towards,” said Tyler Deaton, senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a conservative advocacy organization that promotes both gay rights and religious freedom.