Paul Mero: Stewart’s Fairness for All is a failed strategy to protect religious freedom

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, speaks in favor of the Fairness for All Act on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019, near the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The contention between religious freedom and gay rights is and always has been binary. The “Utah Compromise” of 2015 was a mirage and its illusory light distantly refracting for dull visionaries now gives hope to an identical federal proposal by U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart. But it too will disappoint.

Here is why: Can you imagine Martin Luther King Jr. settling for a “Southern Compromise” wherein blacks gain all civil rights except among certain segments of society? Regarding the Utah Compromise, if everyone is being honest, the LGBT community got hoodwinked for a hug at the state Capitol — a disappointing accomplishment as viewed by astute national LGBT advocates who well understood the problems of legalized discrimination.

I sincerely respect my friends and associates who see the current Fairness for All differently. But frankly, none of them have fought the culture war to the extent I have. All lack the bona fides to authoritatively counter my warning today: Fairness for All is a failed strategy to protect religious freedom.

Few people were aware that on Oct. 8, 2013, the Sutherland Institute hosted a private presentation at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for around 100 supporters, policymakers and key religious leaders. The presentation introduced a new initiative, Fairness to All, an attempt to aggressively contend for religious freedom in our state.

The research behind our campaign was impeccable and perhaps the most thorough and expensive research on the subject in state history. Utah’s Equality Utah was running billboards up and down I-15 claiming that 70% of Utahns supported gay rights. I was sure that claim was not accurate. Not in Utah.

Our research proved Equality Utah’s claim essentially accurate. Inside Sutherland’s conference room, a few months prior to the creation of our Fairness to All initiative, we received the bad news. But the researchers also discovered a fascinating tidbit. When survey respondents were given a binary choice between religious freedom and gay rights, the results swung an incredible 45 points in uncompromising support of religious freedom.

Call it misfortune or serendipity, depending on which side you fall, I was fired from my position at Sutherland in August 2014 – and our Fairness to All campaign ended. With no real opposition, on March 6, 2015, the Utah Legislature passed a statewide nondiscrimination law. Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once expressing enthusiasm for Fairness to All, had signed onto the conditional surrender.

Interestingly, the Utah Compromise was hailed at the time as a model for the nation, as is Stewart’s federal bill now. But when I conceived of the Fairness to All campaign, our research showed that the strategy would only work in Utah. We had no expectation for the strategy to work in any other state.

Utah is the only state religiously homogenous enough to achieve a dramatic 45-point turnaround in public opinion – a turnaround, especially among Latter-day Saints, last seen in 2010 with the introduction of the Utah Compact as it created a binary choice for voters within the state immigration debate.

Fairness to All could have worked to preserve religious freedom in Utah. Fairness for All hasn’t in any other state and won’t at the federal level.

Please, friends, take my experienced word for it: Persecution, not loving compromise, lies ahead. Détente is impossible, not just improbable. From the Utah experience in 2015, the LGBT community will not make the same mistake twice in permitting legalized discrimination and Utah’s religious leaders will not sacrifice their First Amendment rights. The time for wishful thinking is over. It’s time for contenders of religious freedom in Utah to prepare the fortress.

Religious freedom is essentially a chimera today. It, too, has been lost without state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts – another impossible expectation for Utah now controlled by Fairness for All naivete.

So, having already counseled my political friends to stand down on LGBT issues, here is some unsolicited advice for my beloved church as I “look around corners” at the inevitable dangers to come:

1) Use the pulpit, not politics, to speak to the faithful. Get out of politics as an institution.

2) When necessary to contend for our religious freedoms, give no offense and ask only for our constitutional rights.

3) Abandon tax-exempt status now, not later when forced to.

| Tribune File Photo Paul T. Mero

Paul Mero is an old, tired and defeated culture warrior whose current counsel will again, no doubt, be ignored.