I’m a gay LGBTQ freedom advocate. Ignoring religious freedom is a blunder

by Tyler Deaton in "The Hill"

Tyler Deaton explains that the Equality Act is a missed opportunity because it fails to address First Amendment protections for religious Americans.  LGBT rights and religious freedom don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

— This article previously published in The Hill by Tyler Deaton

I grew up in an Evangelical family in the Deep South, mostly in Alabama. I went to a conservative Christian college in the Midwest. At the time, I thought it might make me straight.

I knew I was different from at least the age of four when I developed a crush on the pastor’s son. I drew, in crayon, a picture of us getting married. Somehow, I knew enough to know I had to hide that picture.

College did not keep me on the straight and narrow. In hindsight, nothing could have. Instead, I met my now-husband our freshman year, knocking on doors in the 2004 elections with the College Republicans. My family loves me but coming out as gay was awful. For a few years in my early 20s, I dreaded the possibility I might never see them again. We worked it out with time, and these days I think we’re all happy we can fight about the usual family things.

But I know as a gay man who came of age surrounded by people of faith that sexuality and religious beliefs are some of the most personal aspects of our identity. I also know there is room – and indeed great value – in our communities upholding the rights and viewpoints of both communities. Unfortunately, our lawmaking doesn’t always reflect that.

At age 33, I’ve been fighting for LGBTQ freedom as a Republican for practically my entire adult life. I’ve built a career advising some of the biggest conservative philanthropists in the country on how to advance LGBTQ rights at the helm of American Unity Fund, a nonprofit, and American Unity PAC, a federal Super PAC. Our sustained, aggressive center-right strategy has transformed the national debate over marriage and discrimination.

After years of tireless and bipartisan advocacy, GOP lawmakers provided key votes in many states to enact the freedom to marry. Significant numbers of GOP voters affirmed marriage equality at the ballot. Ultimately, Republican-appointed judges declared a constitutional right to marriage, sweeping away the Defense of Marriage Act and all of its state-based equivalents.

There’s a catch. It’s still perfectly legal in about half the country to fire or evict someone because they’re gay or transgender. A person could be doing a great job and paying their rent on time but have their life upended solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The solution to end this kind of discrimination, which is still all too common, is to include gay and transgender Americans in federal civil rights laws.

There is a proposal to do just that, and it’s a federal bill known as the Equality Act. The first version of the Equality Act was introduced in 1974 by feminist icon Bella Abzug, 12 years before I was born.

The Equality Act is being reintroduced in Congress because it hasn’t passed—for 45 years. The strategy by the left wing of the LGBTQ community to keep using the same failed approach over and over again is, by Einstein’s reckoning, insane.

The crux of the fight for LGBTQ federal civil rights boils down to three factors: how it impacts existing historical civil rights protections, how it impacts businesses, and how it impacts the First Amendment freedom of religion. The religious freedom factor is the most politically volatile at the moment. While I want to see comprehensive legislation like the Equality Act finally pass, I know it won’t happen unless it grapples honestly with religious freedom.

But the Equality Act, as currently written, doesn’t bother to wrestle with the First Amendment implications. This guarantees that religious institutions and people of faith will have to sue to protect their rights, spending millions of dollars and decades on litigation.

Responsible legislation wouldn’t leave all these questions to the courts, and it wouldn’t drive such a wedge between LGBTQ people and people of faith, many of whom are one and the same. In fact, every state that has an LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights law has multiple, broad protections for religious freedom. And these sorts of protections for religious freedom have not been controversial in places like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois and California. Connecticut and Illinois even have Religious Freedom Restoration Acts on the books to protect religious freedom from government interference.

The biggest strategic blunder in the draft of the Equality Act is the unwillingness even to protect the sorts of religious freedoms that are constitutionally guaranteed.

This would be a sign of good faith to conservatives who are moving, like everyone else in the country, toward greater support for the LGBTQ community. It would also help recruit more Republican co-sponsors to the legislation, which we badly need.

Conservative religious groups like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have recently adopted positions of support for LGBTQ civil rights coupled with adequate religious freedom protections. The LGBTQ community would be smart to welcome these overtures, and it would dramatically accelerate expanding freedom for everyone regardless of religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

About half of the country’s LGBTQ population still lives without legal recourse when faced with life-altering discrimination. LGBTQ leaders owe it to our friends and family to pass federal legislation as soon as possible to protect them.

I know what it feels like to be hurt by religion and I know what it feels like to grow up in one of the most conservative parts of the country. I know so many gay and transgender people with the same experience. But we can’t let that pain inhibit us from distinguishing between genuine religious freedom versus the harmful discrimination that often happens in the name of religion.

If the Equality Act’s sponsors continue to be unwilling to entertain legitimate religious freedom, then another legislative vehicle will be required to have any chance of passage in the short term. I and most other LGBTQ Americans and our allies unwilling to wait. Certainly not another 45 years.

Tyler Deaton is Senior Advisor to American Unity Fund and American Unity PAC 

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