George Pyle: Is Chris Stewart a secret atheist asset?

(J. Scott Applewhite | AP file photo) As Democrats champion anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community and Republicans counter with worries about safeguarding religious freedom, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, is offering a proposal that aims to achieve both goals.

Whenever one of my lifelong Mormon friends expresses frustration with the leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I feel the need to offer them refuge.

(I am speaking here of friends who are lifelong Mormons. I don’t think I have any lifelong friends who are Mormon. I haven’t lived in one place long enough for that.)

No pressure. But if any frustrated LDS members want to come over to the atheist realm, I can get them in. I know people.

Such as, oh, say, Chris Stewart.

No, not really. The U.S. representative from Utah’s 2nd District is a member in good standing of the LDS Church. At least, that’s what it says in his Wikipedia entry.

But, like other political leaders who are also members of the LDS Church and other religious orders, and like leaders of those religions, one sometimes wonders if they aren’t ringers. Secret atheist assets, in the sense that the odd behavior of Stewart and the president he continues to support can best be explained by seeing them as Russian assets.

The latest bit of evidence for my favorite conspiracy theory — that many of those who claim to be standing up for religion are actually sowing the seeds of its destruction — is something called the Fairness for All Act.

That’s a bill put forward last week by, among other House Republicans, Stewart and fellow Utahns John Curtis and Rob Bishop. It would echo, in part, another bill already passed by the House, the Equality Act, which won the vote of Utah’s other House member, Democrat Ben McAdams.

Either bill would add more Civil Rights Act-type protections for gays, lesbians, transgender people and same-sex couples in areas such as employment, housing and public accommodations. The main difference between the two measures — other than the fact that the Equality Act passed the House and the Fairness For All Act won’t — is that the latter adds verbiage to give religious people and organizations some exemptions from following the law.

Some LGBTQ advocates were consulted on the drafting of the Fairness For All Act and have expressed willingness to, if nothing else, keep talking. A Republican-sponsored bill that starts with the acceptance of gay rights in much of American life has to be counted as a big step forward. There may well be some grand compromise in the offing.

Still, the claim that laws making it mandatory to treat gays and lesbians equally before the law and in employment, housing and public accommodations must have an exemption for people of faith makes no sense at all. It never has.

Because, once you get outside the First Amendment protected houses of worship and their religious rites, nobody loses anything to the enforcement of something like The Equality Act.

The way the law should treat any religious objection to gay rights and marriage equality is just the way the LDS Church explains its view of same-sex attraction: Having it isn’t a sin. Acting on it is.

Seeking religious exemptions to this and other laws can only mean that people of faith need and deserve a license to be cruel to people they don’t like. It makes no more sense than exempting religious people from laws that demand equal treatment for women or racial minorities. Or from laws that prohibit human sacrifice or selling your daughters into slavery.

Is that really the image of faith, any faith, that Stewart and other advocates of the Fairness For All act want to project?

The rapid decline of organized religion in American life — rapidly catching up with the situation in Europe and Asia — is in large part due to the way many people of faith treat gays and women. A way that more and more millennials and their younger siblings want no part of.

If this is protecting religion, no one need bother trying to weaken it.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle is editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.