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Opinion: Compromise on LGTBQ rights and religion finally hits Washington

The Respect for Marriage Act, as amended, could help bring peace to a national battlefield in the culture wars

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Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is shown speaking to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., flanked by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., left, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 29. Sinema acknowledged the role The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints played in amending and supporting the bill.

AP

After six years, the idea behind the extraordinary “great Utah compromise” has finally caught on. 

The amended federal Respect for Marriage Act promises to accomplish nationally what Utah’s 2016 legislation has in this state — inspire peace on a major battleground of the culture war that has divided much of the country in recent years.

We strongly support passage of this bill, which has passed the Senate and House with bipartisan support. 

The federal bill is by no means a replica of Utah’s law, but it promises to do much the same thing — allow for the rights of LGBTQ people while enumerating and reinforcing First Amendment religious liberties. 

Some conservative voices have opposed the bill because it would write same-sex marriage into federal law. The reality is that, seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges ruled that states must allow same-sex marriage, the nation has little appetite for rescinding that right.

According to Gallup, some 71% of Americans support legal recognition for same-sex marriage. And the Public Religion Research Institute conducted a survey in 2021 that showed 79% of Americans support laws that protect LGTBQ people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.

That support crosses all political and religious lines and includes 84% of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns this newspaper and has formally endorsed the Respect for Marriage Act.

The church has long supported broad protections for basic rights and accommodations. The fear among many religious people, however, has been that opposition to gay marriage on principle would endanger their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion. 

Churches worried they would eventually be required to allow gay marriages within their chapels, in violation of their core beliefs. Other religious institutions and schools have worried, with good reason, that they might be forced to offer services and accommodations that go against their consciences. 

The amended bill draws clear lines protecting those rights. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not changed its doctrine on marriage, and the bill would assure that Washington could not attempt to force it to do so. No one, on either side of this issue, would be forced to compromise core beliefs.

As Elder Jack N. Gerard, a General Authority Seventy and the signer of a letter indicating the church’s support for the bill, told the Deseret News, “This does not change church doctrine. In fact, the religious freedom amendment (in the bill) supports our ability to practice our doctrine.”

Specifically, the amended bill says, “Nothing in this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, shall be construed to diminish or abrogate a religious liberty or conscience protection otherwise available to an individual or organization under the Constitution of the United States or Federal law.”

In a subsection on goods and services, it says, “Any refusal under this subsection to provide such services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges shall not create any civil claim or cause of action.”

The bill originated as a way to protect gay marriage after concerns that the Supreme Court’s decision to remove a federal right to an abortion might be followed by a future decision rescinding the right to same-sex marriage. That bill had strong bipartisan support, but did not include protections for religious liberty, which occasioned the amendment supported by religious organizations. It became an opportunity to find a solution of mutual benefit.

As with all compromises, detractors can be found on all sides of this issue. Some progressive Democrats, for example, say it doesn’t go far enough in protecting gay marriage. 

But while the legislation doesn’t give either side all it wants, it is a remarkable victory for bipartisanship and compromise in an era of intense political division in Washington. It captures the spirit and essence of Utah’s compromise, which has worked well since its passage. 

PRRI also published research in 2019 that found that 77% of Utahns support state nondiscrimination protection for LGBTQ people, tying it for the second highest percentage in the United States. At the same time, the survey found that just 49% of Utahns “oppose religiously based refusals to serve gay and lesbian people.” That was the lowest percentage of any state in the top 30 of those who supported nondiscrimination protection.

The lesson is that the great Utah compromise did not require either side to abandon or bend its core values, and both are coexisting peacefully and with mutual respect. The Respect for Marriage Act is an opportunity for that peace to spread much further.