Chris Stewart reintroduces bill he says will protect both LGBTQ and religious rights

But civil rights groups say it will permit discrimination in the name of religion against gays.

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP file photo) In this July 26, 2017, file photo, people with the Human Rights Campaign hold up "equality flags" on Capitol Hill in Washington. The House passed a comprehensive LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill Thursday but it could be doomed by lack of Republican support in the Senate. Utah Rep. Chris Stewart is proposing an alternative measure that he says protects both LGBTQ rights and religious liberties. Most gay rights groups oppose Stewart's bill as locking in discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Rep. Chris Stewart reintroduced Friday a bill he says will ban discrimination against the LGBTQ community without infringing on religious liberty — a day after the House passed on a mostly party-line vote the proposed Equality Act, which conservatives say protects gays but not religion.

That Democratic bill is not seen as likely to pass the evenly split Senate, so Stewart sees his bill as a potential compromise.

However, major LGBTQ groups have long contended that Stewart’s legislation actually hardens discrimination against people by religious organizations and permits discrimination in the name of religion.

“The country can accommodate both civil liberties for LGBT individuals and religious freedom,” Stewart said. “It is time to define the federal protections for our LGBT and religious friends and neighbors.”

Stewart’s bill, called the Fairness for All Act, is cosponsored by 20 House Republicans — including the other three Utah representatives, and is patterned after landmark legislation passed by the Utah Legislature in 2015 that was designed to protect both gay rights and religion.

The Equality Act passed Thursday attracted three Republican votes while there is little sign of Democratic support for Stewart’s alternative.

That Utah law has “been incredibly successful. And we think it’s a model for the rest of the nation,” Stewart said in a telephone town hall meeting on Thursday.

He added that the Equality Act pushed through the House by Democrats on Thursday is “hostile towards religious freedom. It says, essentially. religious freedom and religious objections have no value at all in civil discourse. And that’s wrong.”

Stewart said his bill protects the LGBTQ community against discrimination in housing and work, although it carves out exemptions — supporters called them protections — for religious reasons.

An information sheet from Stewart said the bill protects the tax-exempt status of religious organizations and colleges. It says, for example, that universities operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Catholics and evangelicals could follow their religious standards without jeopardizing federal grants for students or for research.

It also said the bill also “protects the owners of small businesses whose religious and moral principles prevent them from participating in activites that are contrary to their conscience and beliefs.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sees it differently.

“By singling out LGBTQ people for lesser protections than other characteristics under federal law – such as race, ethnicity, and religion – the new legislation signals that LGBTQ people are less worthy of protection,” it said when Stewart’s bill was originally introduced in 2019.

Also in 2019, a coalition of numerous civil and gay rights groups issued a statement saying Stewart’s bill “would erode protections that already exist for people based on race, sex and religion, rolling back protections that have been on the books for decades. It would expand the number of places and situations in which lawful discrimination could occur.”

However, others praised the bill as it was reintroduced on Friday.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox called Stewart’s bill “a nuanced and good-faith policy that both protects religious freedom and the right of LGBTQ individuals to be free from discrmination. This is the type of commonsense solution that Utah does best.”

The Alliance for Lasting Liberty Coalition said, “This legislation shows that LGBT right and religious freedom do not have to be in conflict. Instead we can come together to protect all Americans and unify the country on what has for too long been a divisive issue.

The alliance includes such groups as the LDS Church, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

Stewart said, “It is hard to really love our neighbors when we are fighting with them over whose rights are more more important,” Stewart said. “We have wasted enough time, energy and money fighting over who deserves which legal protections.”