Fairness in the public square is equal protection under the law.
There is a difference between discrimination and public ridicule towards impolite bigots. Fairness towards others isn’t just simply letting someone say or do anything they want while they veil their motivation behind religion. Many in the South had deeply held religious beliefs about racial segregation and inter-marriage; a religious belief is not a hedge against equal protection under the law. In the areas of public accommodation (goods and services open to the public) a short definition of equal protection under the law is that if one offers a good or a service in the public square it is open to all, not only to those that are deemed worthy or don’t conflict with a deeply held belief.
One of the underpinnings of the Gospel is an element of fairness and equal access to all ordinances for those who are worthy. The Brethren outlined 5 key points in their recent news conference on religious freedom and nondiscrimination:
1. The Church will support legislation where it is being sought to provide protections in housing, employment and some other areas where LGBT people do not have protections, while ensuring that religious freedom is not compromised.
2. The Church believes that a “fairness for all” approach, which strives to balance reasonable safeguards for LGBT people while protecting key religious rights, is the best way to overcome the sharp divisions and present cultural divide in our nation.
3. The Church is alarmed at the erosion of religious freedom. When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser. This is just as wrong as persecution or retaliation against LGBT people.
4. This appeal for a balanced approach between religious and gay rights does not represent a change or shift in doctrine for the Church. It does represent a desire to bring people together, to encourage mutually respectful dialogue in what has become a highly polarized national debate.
5. In this approach, neither side may get all that they want. We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values.
The State of Utah then passed SB296, which is a large step forward towards the principal of fairness in the public square. In their presentation to express their support of the bill, Elder Holland pointed out: “What kinds of religious rights are we talking about? To begin with, we refer to the constitutionally guaranteed right of religious communities to function according to the dictates of their faith. This includes their right to teach their beliefs from the pulpit and in church classrooms, share their views openly in the public square, select their own leaders, and minister to their members freely.”
There is a well-established protection of religious practices and discrimination based on religious tenants are protected as long as they don’t cross the church door. In other words, religious institutions are not a place of public accommodation in the most basic sense of the word. The problem of SB 296 is that it is primarily focused on the idea of “fairness” for religious objections rather than fairness for all. It does extend discrimination protections to the LGBT community but it also passed with SB 297, which allows those that preform civil functions to opt out of preforming them (as long as someone will do them). Because of the peculiarity of Utah law these laws do not address some of the most basic questions of public accommodations like the baker, the florist, or the photographer refusing to preform their services based on religious protections. SB 296 is a move forward but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
(Image: store-window sticker campaign by the Washington Blade)