What Utah can teach the country about gay rights and religion

by Kelsey Dallas in "Deseret News"

As Congress weighs federal gay rights legislation, Utah leaders are celebrating their own work on LGBTQ issues over the past six years.

A new video, released Friday by Equality Utah, explores how the state has worked to protect religious freedom and gay rights at the same time. It calls on policymakers elsewhere to embrace that approach.

“There are people who don’t believe that religious liberty can coexist with LGBTQ rights, but that’s simply not true. We have proven that here in Utah time and time again,” says Troy Williams, Equality Utah’s executive director, in the video.

Much of the video focuses on SB296, a 2015 law that protects LGBTQ Utahns from discrimination in the housing and hiring contexts. Williams and others explain why the measure earned the support of residents from across the political and religious spectrum.

“The key to passage was our willingness to engage each other and always demand … mutual respect,” Williams says.

Utah Sen. President Stuart Adams notes that, as he worked on the bill, he felt like he was putting his faith into action.

“It was actually kind of life-changing,” he says.

The law has also been life-changing for members of the LGBTQ community, according to Stacey Harkey, an actor and small business owner in the state.

“It’s not just that we have legal protections, but now the LGBTQ community is being treated differently by their neighbors, by their family,” he says in the video.

The 2015 bill laid the groundwork for other important legislation, since it helped gay rights activists, conservative politicians, faith leaders and others feel comfortable working together, Williams says. In the past six years, Utah has passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes laws and a ban on conversion therapy, among other gay rights-related measures.

What’s happened in Utah has been miraculous, according to Orlan Johnson, who works for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But he’s among those who feel Utah’s miracles can be repeated if lawmakers in other states prioritize finding solutions over fanning the flames of conflict.

“If we can do it in Utah, we can do it throughout the entire country,” Williams says as the video draws to a close.

Doug Andersen, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement that he hopes Utah’s experiences will pave the way toward legislative solutions in Congress and other states.

“We believe we are all brothers and sisters, and that by working together we can find common ground. As was demonstrated in the state of Utah in 2015, there need not be conflict between religious freedom and LGBT rights. We hope our success in Utah will show the way for a national solution,” he said.

This article first appeared in Deseret News.