Rep. John Curtis wants to halt a growing argument about whether America should protect gay rights or religious liberty — saying Utah has shown it is possible to do both.

“The debate is too often framed that religious liberty and individual expression are a zero-sum game” and one must win and one lose, he said in a speech Friday to the conservative Sutherland Institute think tank in Salt Lake City.

“That's not true,” the Provo Republican said. “There is room to protect both rights — without compromising religious values.”

The speech comes after the Democratic-controlled House recently passed the LGBTQ Equality Act to push back on actions by President Donald Trump such as giving federal funds to religious-sponsored foster agencies that won’t adopt to gay people or broadening religious exemptions for employers who do not want to cover birth control in health plans.

The Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to act on that bill — which has been opposed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To those worried about religious rights, he said, “We need to rebrand. We must change the stereotype that protecting religious liberty is a zero-sum game,” he said. “I believe this compromise is possible because of what we have seen right here in Utah.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Congressman John Curtis speaks about "religious freedom for all," and how to weigh that with LGBTQ rights as part of the Congressional Series at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.
Buy this image

He referred to a 2015 law — passed after seven years of debate and an historic compromise with the LDS Church — that provided Utah’s first statewide nondiscrimination protection for the LGBTQ community that supporters said still protected religious rights.

“Here in Utah, we have an opportunity to continue leading the way and fostering religious liberty and rebranding,” he said. “I believe there’s still real opportunity to continue cementing a critical balance between religious liberty and individual rights.”

But Curtis said something even much tougher to achieve is needed besides new laws: changing hearts.

He said he once tried to stop a family dog from eating food off the kitchen counter and his children from eating in the living room by implementing more rules. It didn’t work.

“Rules and laws don’t change people’s hearts. When we don’t change hearts, we may slow the behavior down. We could perhaps even extinguish it while we’re watching. But in the end, we cannot change bad behavior if we do not change hearts.”

Curtis said in recent debates about rights and other issues, he has heard claims of racism launched by different sides at Trump, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Joe Biden — all by people who may want to outlaw their own definitions of racism.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Congressman John Curtis speaks about "religious freedom for all," and how to weigh that with LGBTQ rights as part of the Congressional Series at the Sutherland Institute in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.
Buy this image

“How many pages of text would it take to create such a new law? But wait. There is a law that has already been given to us: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” Curtis said.

“I’m grateful for my association and relationships in my life that helped me better understand the experiences of the LGBTQ community and who have been patient with a religious, conservative Utah boy who grew up in the ‘60s and took a little longer to develop the appropriate empathy than I would like to admit,” he said.

Curtis said his appreciation for the LGBTQ community finally developed not because of a law. “It was firsthand experience with someone that I love who is part of that community. That changed my heart.”

He also stressed, “I believe that the LGBTQ community is a critical part of the fabric of our country and our state. They're deserving of our unequivocal love and respect, and their contributions here in Utah are utterly invaluable.”

Curtis said religious people who hope to protect religious freedom should remember “that our North Star in this debate is the notion that the worth of every soul is great, that every person has intrinsic value and the right to be who they want to be without impediment from government, society and our communities.”