Opinion | We Can Find Common Ground on Gay Rights and Religious Liberty

Why the high enthusiasm for gay rights in conservative, heavily Mormon Utah? No mystery. In 2015, L.G.B.T. -rights advocates, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the state’s Republican leaders agreed on a new law combining L.G.B.T. protections with carefully tailored religious exemptions. The process of negotiating the deal and building trust forged a durable consensus. In fact, just a few months ago, Utah enacted a rule barring harmful “gay conversion” therapy for minors, with the support not only of L.G.B.T. advocates but also of the Mormon hierarchy.

In today’s Trumpified world, Americans tend to think that politics is a brutal Punch and Judy show, and that compromise is a surrender of principles. But when the politics of compromise is in good working order, it builds new alliances, develops new solutions, and turns conflict into cooperation. Utah provided one example. The Fairness for All Act holds out a similar opportunity at the federal level, with at least three substantial payoffs.

First, the bill shows how seeking compromise makes seemingly nonnegotiable moral differences tractable to political bargaining. Unlike the Equality Act, which expands protections for the L.G.B.T. side while narrowing existing protections for the religious side, the Fairness for All bill gives each side a win compared to where it is now. L.G.B.T. people get those important civil-rights protections, more swiftly and surely than the courts could deliver them. More than that, as in Utah, they get the buy-in and active support of an influential swath of the conservative religious community, something that has never been on offer before and that has the potential to change the L.G.B.T. -religious conversation in all kinds of constructive ways. For L.G.B.T. Americans, locking in religious groups’ support for nondiscrimination protections would be a political game-changer — one that might lead to breakthroughs on other fronts.

Religious interests get assurances that religious-affiliated organizations like schools and charities can hire and teach according to their beliefs and, importantly, that faith-based groups can keep their nonprofit status while maintaining their beliefs and practices concerning marriage, family and sexuality. It is significant that the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, an influential higher education association of more than 180 Christian institutions, has endorsed Fairness for All.

Second, the bill demonstrates that compromise is not necessarily just about splitting differences. Often, compromise is a creative, generative force, expanding the political frame and inventing new policy approaches to break old deadlocks. In their search for traction on the particularly thorny issue of faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies, the Fairness for All negotiators devised an innovative approach that lets individuals, rather than governments, pay placement agencies. In their quest to sweeten the pot for both sides, they agreed to bar companies from firing employees based on what they say about marriage and sexuality outside the workplace — a type of free-speech protection that currently does not exist for either side under federal law.

Most important of all is the lesson Utah teaches. Politics can paralyze and polarize, yes. But politics can also conciliate and heal, with effects that radiate farther and last longer than the terms of any one piece of legislation. By creating new constituencies for both sides of a bargain, political accommodation can change hearts and minds, not just law — a stronger foundation for civil rights and religious liberties than any statute or judicial decision alone can provide. As the L.D.S. Church leadership said in endorsing the Utah compromise, security lies in reciprocity: “In a game of total victory, we all lose.”

There is one other thing that dialogue, negotiations and accommodation can provide that the culture-war mentality doesn’t offer: the chance to widen the aperture of understanding between people of different life experiences and perspectives, and to learn from others. That has certainly been the experience in our own friendship, between a gay atheist and a straight Christian.


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