Supporters say new federal legislation a path forward in LGTBQ rights, religious protections fight

by Holly Meyer in "Nashville Tennessean"

Supporters of an effort to expand federal LGBTQ protections while still securing religious freedoms say a new bill is the solution to a long-running stalemate.

U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced the Fairness for All Act on Friday. It aims to find a middle ground to the contentious legal battles that pit religious belief against sexual orientation and gender identity rights.

“All of God’s children, regardless of sexual orientation or religion, deserve dignity, respect, and the right to pursue happiness,” Stewart said in a statement. “This legislation allows us to settle the legal questions and get back to the business of loving our neighbors.”

Under federal civil rights law, the legislation would broaden federal LGBTQ protections while creating religious exemptions.

Among the bill’s proposed changes are protections for LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations like restaurants and stores. It also would provide protections for small religious wedding venues, allow religious organizations to hire only those who share their beliefs and let religiously affiliated hospitals opt out of abortions and surgeries related to the gender transition process.

The bill has been in the works for a few years, said Tim Schultz, president of the Washington, D.C.-based 1st Amendment Partnership.

“The goal is find common ground,” Schultz said. “The goal is to say, ‘Do we really want people to be fired for being gay or transgender? Do we want them denied housing? Do we want that?

“But on the other hand do we really want Catholic schools to be no longer legally viable because of their understanding of sexuality? Do we really want kids to go to those schools unable to no longer receive federal lunch money?”.

Who supports the Fairness for All Act?

The 1st Amendment Partnership, a nonprofit that advocates for religious freedom for all, has worked alongside a coalition of religious groups and LGBTQ rights organizations to put the Fairness for All Act together, Schultz said.

Many of the religious groups involved believe that marriage is a union of one man and one woman, Schultz said. And many of the LGBTQ rights advocates on board work at the state level, he said.

Supporters include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities and the American Unity Fund.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church, a longtime proponent of religious liberty issues, sees the conflict between the fight for religious protections and LGBTQ rights as an unnecessary one, said Melissa Reid, the associate director of public affairs and religious liberty for the North American division of the church.

“We feel like as Christians we can support both religious freedom and an individual’s civil rights,” Reid said. “We feel that Fairness for All is a principled and balanced approach to doing just that.”

The denomination, which believes that “sexual intimacy belongs only within the marital relationship of a man and a woman,” helped draft the legislation.

Without the passage of the Fairness for All Act, church leadership is worried about the future of Adventist-run schools and hospitals, Reid said. If other policies pass that strip out religious protections, faith groups including churches could face crippling lawsuits as well as the loss of tax exempt status and accreditation, she said.

But if passed, the Fairness for All Act would be a lasting and balanced approached to this complex problem, the American Unity Fund said in a statement. The organization describes its work as making the conservative case for advancing LGBTQ freedoms.

“We believe basic civil rights should be guaranteed for everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, or religion,” the American Unity Fund statement said. “Those rights can be fully protected while safeguarding religious freedom.”

Not everyone agrees Fairness for All is the solution
But compromise policies like the Fairness for All Act do not sit well with everyone. Advocates on both sides of the debate worry they give up too much and continue to permit discrimination.

Schultz is aware of the parallel criticism.

“We’re trying to undo the stalemate. It’s costly for all involved. It’s kind of a lose-lose stalemate,” Schultz said. “We think that the stalemate has a lot of people living in fear.”

The legal issues surrounding religious protections and LGBTQ rights crop up in a variety of arenas, including the workplace and the marketplace.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. This year, the high court has taken up three workplace discrimination cases dealing with whether it is legal to fire employees due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

While the legal tension between religious protections and LGBTQ rights did not begin with the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S., the Supreme Court decision was a touchstone in the current debate, said Daniel Bennett, a political science professor at John Brown University in Arkansas.

The crowd celebrates outside of the Supreme Court on Friday June 26, 2015, after the high court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)

“I think those conflicts are unavoidable,” said Bennett, who has written about these legal issues.

“I think it’s inevitable just given the constitutional arguments in play and it’s a really tricky question for the bench. Somebody is going to have to surrender something.”

But Bennett does not expect fairness for all legislation will be the answer to this ongoing tension in the country, especially given the currently divided Congress.

Not the first attempt to legislate LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Utah did pass similar legislation, referred to as the “Utah Solution,” in 2015. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and LGBTQ advocates worked together to come up with the successful bill.

But at the federal level, the Fairness for All Act is not the only attempt at legislating these complex legal questions.

The new bill is seen as an alternative to the Equality Act. This anti-discrimination legislation would change civil rights laws by giving explicit protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

It is backed by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group. It also has received celebrity support, including from megastar and registered Tennessee voter Taylor Swift.

“LGBTQ people deserve full civil rights protections in the workplace, in everyplace – in education, housing, credit, jury duty, service and public accommodations. No one should be forced to lose his or her job, their home or to live in fear because of who they are and whom they love,” Pelosi said, according to a news release, from the floor of the House.

The bill passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives in May, but it faces a tough path through the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Last year, the First Amendment Defense Act was reintroduced. This unsuccessful legislation would have given protections to those who believe marriage is only between one man and one woman.

The political viability of the Fairness for All Act also remains to be seen, but Schultz thinks the public would support it.

“There is a public appetite for a law like this. It’s very strong,” Schultz said. “We’re trying to create a viable political apparatus that can make that happen.”

USA TODAY contributed to this report. 

Reach Holly Meyer at or 615-259-8241 and on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.