Endorse the Fairness for All Act, Mr. President. It’s exactly the kind of win-win, bipartisan, creative initiative you’re looking for.
In June, the Supreme Court extended employment-discrimination protections to LGBT Americans, but it left a harder issue unresolved. What about the religious baker who can’t, in good conscience, cater a same-sex wedding? The Catholic adoption agency that feels it can’t place kids with same-sex couples? The Mormon university that objects to including same-sex spouses in dorms for married students? In those and similar cases, LGBT rights advocates and religious-liberty advocates have been at loggerheads, fighting a pitched battle in the courts and using scorched-earth, apocalyptic rhetoric.
There is a better way. In December 2019, a consortium of influential religious organizations and the American Unity Fund, a center-right LGBT rights group, unveiled the Fairness for All Act. The proposed legislation expands federal LGBT civil rights protections to cover public accommodations, education and more, but it also includes carefully negotiated, narrowly drawn exemptions for religious businesses and organizations. Beyond its legal fine print, the Fairness for All Act shatters the wall of opposition to LGBT protections among religious conservatives — a political breakthrough.
Unfortunately, Democrats turned their backs. The bill found only Republican sponsors. Democrats preferred a one-sided alternative, passed in the House in May 2019, that would expand LGBT protections while narrowing existing religious-liberty protections. That option appeals to progressive purists, but it has zero chance of Senate passage, and the conservative Supreme Court majority might gut it anyway.
By endorsing the Fairness for All Act, Biden would swing Democratic firepower behind it. He would demonstrate that he is committed to advancing nondiscrimination while also addressing the concerns of the faithful. He would signal that he is serious about uniting the country. He would show that the vital center is back in business.
Last and not least, he would make millions of Americans — gay and straight, secular and religious — better off.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
This article was originally published by Jonathan Rauch in The Washington Post Magazine.