In a Game of Total Victory
We All Lose

Fairness for all is achieved when religious freedom and nondiscrimination protections are balanced

It has been two full months since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called publicly for legislators to pass laws that safeguard religious freedoms while also extending protections in housing and employment for LGBT people. Six weeks after the Church’s news conference and after intense negotiations between various community stakeholders, the Utah State legislature passed groundbreaking legislation that achieved that goal. 

Media outlets promptly dubbed the legislation the “Utah Compromise.”  Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times described the effort as a “golden mean” between religious freedom and gay rights. The Wall Street Journal headlined, “Utah Shows the Way on Gay Rights,” while the Washington Post described it as a “landmark bill.” Others described it as “the Utah Miracle.”

Some were less enthusiastic, however, and seemed anxious not to allow the Utah effort to be seen as a model for other states. One writer in the Daily Beast claimed that the “awful” legislation erodes freedom for everyone. Others wondered if the legislation delivered religious freedom protections for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but for no one else.

All of this offers an interesting window into the give and take of public discourse.  The Church’s news conference and the specific bills that the Utah legislature passed are now part of the public record and can easily be examined, so there should be no cause for confusion. But aside from the detail, it’s important not to lose sight of the central thrust of the Church’s message. 

The intent of the Church is to promote sound principles to encourage discussion and action in legislatures that reflect fairness for all. Author and journalist Jonathan Rauch, himself a supporter of religious freedom and gay rights, understands this. “The right way to read the Mormon statement,” he says, “is as an invitation to talk, not as a final offer.” Calling the Church’s proposal an “olive branch,” he insists that “striking a successful balance is possible. In fact, it has been done again and again.”

Our society’s information environment steers the public to view conflicts as just a part of a bigger culture war, a battle of winner-takes-all in which there is only ever one right and one wrong, and where the only answer to any question is either “yes” or “no.” Such polarizing only hardens our hearts and coarsens our reason. The aim of the Church is to help untie this knot. But doing so requires trust and good will from both sides. It is simply a fact that we live in a pluralistic society, and different viewpoints must find a way to contend without defeating one another. These two goods — protecting the conscience of religious people and affirming the right of LGBT people to lead a dignified life — can be compatible. Security lies in reciprocity.

Balance between competing interests, not a war pitting one absolute against another, is a more sure way for our pluralistic democracy. Rights work best when sought and shared by everyone. And since we all live and breathe and move in the same public space, there is no acceptable alternative to working out our differences.

A society in which everyone gets all they want is not a democracy but rather a Utopia, a word that literally means “nowhere.” Because the Church initiative gained support from all sides, it resulted in possibly the most balanced protections in the country, not just for the LDS faith and LGBT people but for all religious entities, small businesses and individuals. On the issue of LGBT rights, laws offering protection in housing and employment that were already enacted in a few municipalities became statewide law overnight. And for both sides, freedom of expression in and out of the workplace without facing retaliation from employers is guaranteed.  

While the specifics of the Utah law may not translate into every locality around the country, it was the approach that matters — an acknowledgment that people with widely diverse views can work things out with enough goodwill. That approach required religious organizations to reach out to protect certain rights for LGBT people, and for LGBT advocates to be willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of religious conscience. Both sides had to give a little, but neither side sacrificed their beliefs or principle. It’s time for national LGBT rights groups and faith groups alike to do the same.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints seeks to end the cycle of suspicion. It is not an approach born of wishful thinking or naïve trust, but rather it is the product of years of deliberation, discussion and listening. The task was best put by Elder D. Todd Christofferson in an editorial board visit two days after the January 27 news conference: “Frankly, what we're saying is, we have to do the hard work. We can't just throw out a slogan and get away with that. It's not good enough."

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