After 50-year stalemate, it's time to pass federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination law

After 50-year stalemate, it's time to pass federal LGBTQ nondiscrimination law
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A growing number of states have introduced legislation targeting transgender youth and their access to school sports and gender-affirming health care. Since January alone, more than two dozen states have introduced bills that would ban transgender girls and women from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. In 2020, legislation was considered in 18 states. Outside observers may be surprised to learn that these kinds of bills have been blocked in Utah, a state with one of the most conservative legislative bodies in America, thanks in large measure to a veto threat from our Republican governor.

Anyone who knows Utah well wasn’t surprised. For the last six years, our state has consistently sought to advance protections for the LGBTQ community, while also defeating frequent attempts at discrimination. Utah is an example for the nation and the U.S. Congress that religious freedom and LGBTQ rights can coexist. This lesson should also continue to inform the ongoing national debate around federal nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ Americans. 

In 2015, Utah became the first state with a Republican majority to pass LGBTQ employment and housing nondiscrimination protections through the state legislature. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan margins and support from a broad array of religious organizations, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In what has become a rarity in U.S. politics, we transcended partisan divisions and came together to underscore what we know to be true: Protecting the dignity and respect of LGBTQ people is not a progressive or a conservative value, it’s an American value. 

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The Equality Act was first introduced into Congress in 1973. Following the bill’s passage in the U.S. House with a bipartisan majority and the recent Senate Judiciary hearing, this seminal legislation is now closer than ever to becoming law. Republican in the House have also introduced their own version of a nondiscrimination bill, the Fairness for All Act, which also represents a major step forward in recognizing the harms that LGBTQ people endure due to the current lack of nondiscrimination protections at the federal level. 

As we’ve listened to critics and defenders of both bills spar about why their bill is better than the other, we are concerned the two sides will remain at loggerheads, carrying on a bitter stalemate until the window of opportunity is closed. And if that were to happen, everyone involved loses – most of all, the LGBTQ people who so desperately need protections in employment, housing, healthcare and public spaces. 

After nearly 50 years, a solution is long overdue. It’s now time for Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, to come together to pass the most robust protections possible. 

Utahns have seen from experience what can happen when everyone comes to the table ready to reach an understanding. We got buy-in from all sides, implemented reasonable considerations to preserve religious freedom without violating LGBTQ liberty, and protected people from discrimination. This approach has also helped change the hearts and minds of Utahns. In 2019, a Public Religion Research Institute poll revealed that 77 percent of Utahns support LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. We ranked the second highest level of support in the nation, just behind New Hampshire, and well ahead of California and New York. And there’s more. 

The passage of this historic law laid the groundwork for more steps forward for the LGBTQ community. In 2017, we repealed the so-called “No Promo Homo” law that prohibited teachers from discussing LGBTQ issues in our public schools. In 2018, we worked with the State Board of Education to strengthen anti-bullying protections for LGBTQ students.  In 2019, we passed an LGBTQ inclusive hate crimes law. In 2020, we became the 19th state in the nation to ban the harmful practice of conversion therapy upon minors.  Gov. Spencer Cox (R) made national headlines last month by speaking movingly about the need to listen to and protect transgender youth. He also oversaw the drafting and funding of a statewide LGBTQ Suicide Prevention Plan

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As a country, we have to find a middle ground and stop pretending that protections for LGBTQ people and freedom for religious people are fundamentally and eternally at odds. There are ways to protect the LGBTQ community and ensure religious people can live out their faith freely. There is a way to respect religious voices without oppressing LGBTQ people. We can and must do both. We have been protecting both of these values in all of our nation’s anti-discrimination laws since the 1960s. 

If we don’t act now, we will delay critical protections for years, possibly even decades. 

Working together is the only path forward. It's what's possible in the current Congress when all of us come together to tackle the very real problem of LGBTQ discrimination. Codifying nondiscrimination protections into federal law will strengthen our country and make this a safer place for all LGBTQ people and the people who love us. It’s time. 

Clifford Rosky is a professor of law at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law.

Troy Williams is the executive director of Equality Utah.