Recently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that it would support efforts to increase protections for members of the LGBT community in areas such as employment and housing. This is an important step forward in recognizing that our laws need to ensure that all people- regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity- are treated fairly and protected by the law.
This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2015 Winter Newsletter >>
There are no protections currently under Utah and federal law to ensure that LGBT individuals are not discriminated against in their places of employment or housing. Nor does Utah law protect members of the LGBT community from being turned away or discriminated against in public accommodations such as eating at a restaurant or being provided other publicly available services.
Therefore, it’s encouraging to hear LDS leaders speak out about the need for greater protections to ensure that all Utahns are treated fairly and equally.
But any implication that fairness and equality are pitted against privately held beliefs in need of further protection is a false dichotomy. Freedom of religion is one of our fundamental rights, and rightly enjoys strong protection in our state and nation. Our Founding Fathers enshrined protection for religion in the Bill of Rights and Utah’s constitution and state laws ensure robust religious freedom. In fact, Utah provides among the most stringent religious freedom protection of any state in the country, and Utah’s nondiscrimination laws currently carve out the biggest exceptions for religion in the country. Among other safeguards for religion already enshrined in law is that government can never require a minister or religious leader to solemnize or recognize a marriage that falls outside of his or her faith tradition.
But the practice of one’s faith can not give a green light to discriminate in the public sphere, such as to deny gay and transgender individuals health care, to discriminate against them in housing and employment, or to deny LGBTQ individuals public accommodations and services. Calls for similar accommodations were rejected in connection with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At that time, many proclaimed that serving African-Americans in restaurants or allowing individuals of different races to attend the same schools contravened their religious beliefs. Courts, however, clearly rejected these defenses, reminding us that there is no absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in disregard of the rights and well being of others.
Arguments for exceptions to non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people that were rejected in the context of laws protecting racial minorities must rest on the proposition that ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is different and less important than the interest in ending race discrimination. We refuse to accept that proposition. Equality means that gay and transgender people should have full protection in their places of work and in their housing, and in the businesses that serve the public. These protections should be on par with those set forth in our current Utah anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws with respect to race, gender, religion and other categories.
In its statement, the LDS church calls for a balanced approach. Religion may be freely practiced, and our current laws bolster and protect that freedom. What remains vulnerable is one’s right to live, work, and participate in the community free from discrimination based on one’s gender or sexuality. It is time for Utahns to extend the non-discrimination protection that is needed.
For more about the ACLU of Utah’s work on Equality and Equal Protection for all visit www.acluutah.org/equal-protection