WASHINGTON — Even with Utah’s new Mormon-supported pro-LGBT law, Utah and other states need more protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, advocates say. But the barrier to those gains does not necessarily stem from a lack of support from religious groups.
Utah’s law, which had the backing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, extended anti-discrimination protections in the state to include gender identity and sexual orientation in housing and employment.
The legislation, signed into law March 12, exempts religious organizations from being treated as employers bound to the anti-discrimination statute.
“This bill is appropriate and a solid piece of legislation for the state of Utah, and I can’t
emphasize that enough,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights organization. “It is not a model for the rest of the country. It is not a model for the federal government,” she said at a Brookings Institution panel.
Each state differs in terms of existing law and demographics, advocates say. With Utah, the
citizens were primed for an extension to anti-discrimination safeguards.
Other advocates and analysts agreed.
“Utah started with the broadest religious exemption that I know of in the country…certainly one of the broadest,” said Rose Saxe, a staff attorney at the lesbian gay bisexual & transgender and AIDS projects at the American Civil Liberties Union.
In considering adding protections, existing state laws have to be analyzed, Saxe said. A number of states have not yet “struck” Utah’s balance, she said.
Jeff Graham, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Georgia Equality, said enacting Utah’s law in Georgia “would not be successful at all… There’s no way to do a direct comparison.”
Georgia, unlike Utah, is mainly dealing with a state constitution with strong religious language, Graham said in a phone interview. There are no statewide protections through a separate civil rights statute, prohibiting discrimination in housing or employment, he said.
Still, LGBT advocates think the law in Utah, a conservative, heavily Mormon state, could be beneficial in raising awareness on the need for more safeguards and also noting existing religious support for gay rights.
“One of the biggest hurdles is that most people think this [discrimination] is already illegal. It’s hard to convince people why we need these laws because they actually think it should already be impermissible,” said Saxe.
Word of Utah’s new law may prompt other states to go further, and possibly even bring the gay rights discussion to the front burner on the federal level, Saxe said.
But the idea that religious backing for gay rights, as was the case in Utah, is somehow novel is false, advocates say.
In Georgia, some of the “strongest allies” in working for LGBT safeguards have been religious groups, clergy members and religiously affiliated-social justice programs, Graham said. The suggestion that “there are LGBT people on one side and religious groups on the other is a false narrative.”
“The LGBT community does not oppose religious liberties,” Warbelow said at Brookings on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign. “In fact there are many in the LGBT community who have fought very hard for religious liberties in part because we see ourselves as protecting our own religious liberties on these issues.”
Saxe said it was unfortunate and misleading to hear mostly about the religious voices that oppose extending LGBT protections. Several religious organizations have been supportive even in the fight for same-sex marriage, she said.
Still, the backing of the Mormon Church in Utah was a special case, Saxe said.
The church recognizes that Americans have a variety of beliefs, said Kathleen Flake, a
professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. As they ask for the freedom to
observe their beliefs, Mormons respect that others may have different views.
Flake said the Mormon Church opposed same-sex marriage because of the enshrinement of
marriage in their doctrine. Unlike a number of faiths, Mormons believe that marriage is a part of salvation. And that doctrine defines it as being between a man and a woman, Flake said.
The church felt the U.S. Constitution protected freedom of religion. But even so, Mormons
accept that states should not discriminate, Flake said.
“We are pleased that the Utah Legislature has passed Senate Bill 296. It reflects the very best of collaboration and statesmanship from groups and individuals who may not always agree on all things but who have passed landmark legislation that balances religious freedom and antidiscrimination,” the Mormon Church said in a statement.
Warbelow said she thought the Mormon backing in Utah could reach directly into the faith’s households.
The Church’s backing will help parents who have been struggling with how to accept their gay children, she said. It provides “a critical path” forward for embracing kids who face threats of higher rates of drug abuse, suicide and school dropouts – due at least in part of rejection by their families.
Utah’s law, SB 296, was an important step, but the state still lacks public accommodation
protections in places like businesses and restaurants, Saxe said. Those just learning about
Utah’s law should see the state “as a place where there is more work to be done,” she added.