Rep. Chris Stewart pitches LGBTQ rights bill with religious exemptions

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, leaves a meeting with national intelligence inspector general Michael Atkinson about a whistleblower complaint, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. As Democrats champion anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community and Republicans counter with worries about safeguarding religious freedom, Rep. Chris Stewart is offering a proposal on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019 that aims to achieve both goals.

Washington • In the current debate between protecting rights of the gay community and those of religious groups, Rep. Chris Stewart thinks he’s found a common-ground consensus that comes as close as possible to closing the gap.

Major LGBTQ groups, though, say the legislation Stewart is proposing actually hardens discrimination against people by religious organizations.

The Utah Republican congressman says his bill, the Fairness for All Act, bridges the need to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination on issues ranging from housing to employment and government services while also allowing religious-based organizations to protect their own rights.

Throughout history, Stewart said Friday in introducing his bill, there have been times when principles by different groups are in conflict, even if both sides have good principles.

"The challenge we have before us in our society today is a good example of that,” Stewart said at a Capitol news conference, “where we have the principle of nondiscrimination that every American should be treated fairly and with respect and with dignity and at the same time, a sincerely held belief that religious faith and principles also matter.”

His legislation, pitched as the largest expansion of civil rights since the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, would protect against discrimination in housing and work, though carve out exemptions — supporters called them protections — for religious reasons.

“No religious person should be forced to live, work or serve their community in ways that violates their faith,” the bill's supporters say.

Backers include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Center for Public Justice and the American Unity Fund.

“Within the human heart, there’s enough space for the dignity, for the respect, for freedom — they’re not mutually exclusive principles,” Stewart said Friday. “There’s enough space for both of those can be accommodated. And again, that’s what we’ve tried to do today. Neither side has to lose in order for the other side to win.”

The American Unity Fund, a conservative group promoting LGBTQ rights, says the bill is the best solution to help the different sides of the religious freedom debate.

“This bill is the way to build bridges between diverse communities,” said Margaret Hoover, the president of the American Unity Fund. “It is the kind of bill and approach that represents the best of our traditions as Americans by bringing diverse coalitions together, individuals, people of faith, LGBTQ people and allies. This bill promotes civic pluralism, which is what we are at our heart, the best of America.”

Stewart’s bill isn’t likely to get much traction in the Democrat-led House, which has already passed the Equality Act, a bill that amends the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual identity without the exemptions for religious groups.

The Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s largest organizations for LGBTQ individuals, said Friday that Stewart’s bill takes the wrong approach and legally allows religious groups to discriminate.

The so-called Fairness for All Act is an unacceptable, partisan vehicle that erodes existing civil rights protections based on race, sex and religion, while sanctioning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people," said the group’s president, Alphonso David.

"For LGBTQ people living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, this bill is a double whammy of dangerous rollbacks and discriminatory carve-outs,” David said. “This bill is both wrong and harmful, and we strongly oppose it.”

The Equality Act, which the GOP-led Senate has not taken up, has strong support and grants “full federal equality,” David added.

The American Civil Liberties Union also said it opposed the bill.

Far from being about fairness for everyone, this bill facilitates efforts to allow taxpayer-funded discrimination, undermines existing civil rights protections, and gives a green light to turning LGBTQ people away from jobs, health care, housing, and more,” said Ronnie Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The bill would change the critical balance between our fundamental values of religious liberty and prohibiting discrimination that Congress already struck in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in order to license more discrimination. There’s no reason laws prohibiting discrimination should be different for LGBTQ people.”

Stewart dismissed the criticism, saying that his legislation does more than the Equality Act to protect religious groups.

“This is a meaningful step forward,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And I know many [LGBTQ groups] are committed to the Equality Act but the Equality Act doesn’t do anything for religious liberty. This allows us to bridge them. And, you know, Human Rights Campaign has got some other gay rights activists and organizations here that disagree with them as well.”

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, struck a more positive tone toward the bill, calling it a “milestone” even if it doesn't add up to everything his group wants.

“Representative Stewart and many conservative faith organizations now recognize that LGBTQ Americans must be included in and protected by our nation’s civil rights laws,” Williams said. “Although Equality Utah was not involved in drafting the Fairness for All Act, and we have significant concerns about some of the bill’s provisions, we look forward to beginning a dialogue with the bill’s sponsor.”

Stewart’s bill mirrors the Utah Compromise, a law passed in 2015 in the state that bans discrimination for housing and employment but carves out protections for religious organizations and their affiliates. It was hailed by LGBTQ organizations as well as by Latter-day Saint leaders.

Williams said he hopes Stewart’s bill eventually strikes a similar tone.

“We hope to see that same model of collaboration develop on the federal level, in which people of faith can work alongside LGBTQ leaders to identify and secure robust legal protections for all Americans,” he said.