Latter-day Saint leaders join other faith groups sharing support for Stewart’s LGBTQ rights bill
The Fairness for All Act introduced Friday pairs new protections for gay and transgender Americans with new protections for religious organizations
Utah Rep. Chris Stewart reintroduced legislation Friday that aims to reduce anti-LGBTQ discrimination and, unlike the competing Equality Act that passed the House Thursday, boost protections for people of faith.
The Fairness for All Act, which Stewart originally introduced in December 2019, would update federal civil rights law to require fair treatment of gay and transgender Americans in housing, hiring and many other areas of public life.
It would also expand existing faith-based exemptions to anti-discrimination law to ensure that religiously affiliated schools, adoption agencies and other organizations could continue to operate according to their beliefs about sexuality and marriage.
“It is hard to really love our neighbors when we are fighting with them over whose rights are more important. This country can accommodate both civil liberties for LGBT individuals and religious freedom. We have wasted enough time, energy, and money fighting over who deserves which legal protections. It is time to define the federal protections for our LGBT and religious friends and neighbors,” said Stewart, a Republican who was elected to his fifth term in November 2020, in a statement.
The bill has 20 Republican co-sponsors in the House, including Utah Reps. John Curtis, Blake Moore and Burgess Owens.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities and other faith and advocacy groups have also expressed support for the legislation.
Both bills would outlaw sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination, but only Stewart’s would expand legal protections for people of faith.
The Equality Act would actually limit the application of existing religious freedom law, making faith groups more vulnerable to lawsuits over beliefs, teachings and practices that conflict with LGBTQ rights.
The bill’s proponents argue that such a change is necessary in order to reduce discrimination, but many conservative policymakers and religious leaders disagree.
“Rather than affirm human dignity in ways that meaningfully exceed existing practical protections, the Equality Act would discriminate against people of faith,” wrote five Catholic bishops in a letter to Congress opposing the bill’s reintroduction.
The Fairness for All Act tries to show that it’s possible to protect LGBTQ rights without threatening the future of religious organizations, Tim Schultz, who is president of the 1st Amendment Partnership and served as an adviser for the Fairness for All Act, said to the Deseret News in 2019.
“The starting point for the whole negotiation was how can we maximize freedom on both sides,” he said.
The bill was drafted with input from a variety of religious organizations and advocacy groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Unity Fund and the Center for Public Justice.
On Saturday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement of support for Stewart’s bill.
“We stand by our statements from 2019 and reiterate the Church’s support for equality and fairness. We could support legislation that provides protection for LGBT persons as well as people and institutions of faith. Both are possible and clearly required in a just society. The Church supports legislation, like that introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart, that accomplishes both of these critical requirements and is confident that a balanced, fair, and unifying approach can be achieved,” said Doug Andersen, a spokesman for the church.
The Council for Christian Colleges & Universities also issued a statement applauding the legislation’s reintroduction.
“In pairing religious freedom and LGBT civil rights, the Fairness for All Act underscores that all persons, including LGBT people, are created in the image of God, and therefore possess full dignity, value, and worth. This approach represents civic pluralism at its best, in a society where people with deep differences can live alongside each other with respect and understanding,” the statement, released Friday, said.
The coalition behind the Fairness for All Act drew inspiration from a 2015 Utah policy that banned anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and employment. Like Stewart’s bill, that law paired new protections for gay and transgender residents with additional protections for religious organizations in the state.
“Religious freedom and LGBTQ rights can coexist. Utah demonstrated that to the nation,” said Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, a Republican, to the Deseret News in 2019.
Utah GOP Gov. Spencer Cox released a statement praising the Fairness for All Act on Friday.
“I’m grateful for Rep. Stewart’s work to find a nuanced and good faith policy that both protects religious freedom and the rights of LGBTQ individuals to be free from discrimination. This is the type of common sense solution that Utah does best,” he said.
The Fairness for All Act aims to be a unifying piece of legislation, but, like the Equality Act, it has faced strong pushback.
Gay rights advocates and more liberal faith leaders argue that the bill does not do nearly enough to protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination.
“Carve-outs for religious exemptions in commerce, family definition, medical care or other legal and legally defined benefits of citizenship are, by any other name, a repudiation of the very principles of equality that are foundational to the United States,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, in a 2019 statement.
More conservative leaders, on the other hand, claim the Fairness for All Act fails to consider all the legal ramifications of expanding civil rights protections for gay and transgender Americans.
“It does offer meaningful protections for religious liberty, but it doesn’t engage enough with concerns about privacy, safety, athletic competition and medicine,” said Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, to the Deseret News earlier this month.
These criticisms help explain why the Fairness for All Act stalled in the House Judiciary Committee after its introduction in 2019.
Some observers believe the bill will fare better this year, as Republicans and some Democrats look for a way to advance LGBTQ rights without harming people of faith. Even if it doesn’t pass, it could influence revisions of the Equality Act, which needs to gain Republican support in order to overcome a potential Senate filibuster.
“I think the most viable path forward for any legislative action (on LGBTQ rights) in the next four years is something fairly close to the Fairness for All Act,” Schultz told the Deseret News in December.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who will likely play a key role in negotiations, told the Deseret News that he looks forward to reviewing the Fairness for All Act if it comes to the Senate.
“I appreciate that people of goodwill are trying to solve a longstanding, complex problem. My priority is to preserve the constitutional rights of all Americans to practice their faith, while also ensuring all people are treated with dignity and respect,” he said.
Utah’s other senator, Sen. Mike Lee, who is Republican, was not supportive of the bill when it was first introduced. His office has not responded to a new request for comment.
The bill “would so narrow First Amendment protections that I must actively oppose it,” Lee said in 2019.