The Religious Right Operative Who Helped Write Utah’s Nondiscrimination Law

Posted By on March 19, 2015

**Originally posted to Political Research Associates

Was the non-discrimination/religious freedom law in Utah really the “historic compromise” it’s being touted as, or a Trojan Horse for the Religious Right’s agenda? There now seems to be little doubt with the discovery that one of the law’s authors has spent years working with the country’s most prominent Religious Right leaders and groups to advance right-to-discriminate laws across the country.

After my article last week asserted that the much-hailed Utah LGBTQ rights law was really an attempt by the national Religious Right to gain legitimacy for their agenda to redefine religious liberty as a religious license to legally discriminate, many have begun looking into how the bill actually came into existence.

As Queer Nation recently pointed out, Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois, has a long history of seeking to develop loopholes in civil rights laws. In 2014, as the proposed RFRA in Arizona was causing national headlines for its provisions allowing both private and government individuals to opt-out of civil rights and public accommodation laws if done so for religious beliefs, Wilson and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) teamed up to send a letter to Arizona Republican Governor Jan Brewer, claiming the law was being “egregiously misrepresented.” ADF (formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund back when it was working as part of the legal team defending California’s Prop 8, which stripped marriage rights from same-sex couples), was one of the authors of the Arizona bill. Following massive protests and national outcry, that bill was eventually vetoed by Governor Brewer, but less than a month later a nearly identical bill became law in Mississippi and ADF has worked to pass similar legislation in over a dozen states since.

Robin Fretwell Wilson

Robin Fretwell Wilson

In 2008, Wilson teamed up with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—the group behind the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case—to co-edit their book Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts, where she claimed states must proactively pass “conscience clauses” for religious freedom—the right for individuals, business owners, and government employees to use their religious opinions to legally discriminate against others.[1]

Wilson was more explicit in an op-ed to The New York Times, following the state legislature’s passage of same-sex marriage in 2011. “Without such [individual religious exemptions],” Wilson argues, “groups that hew to their religious beliefs about marriage would be at risk of losing government contracts and benefits and would be subject to lawsuits from private citizens.” She goes on to claim that organizations receiving government funding should never be in danger of losing those tax dollars just because they discriminate against LGBTQ people.

In 2010, Wilson authored a paper in the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy titled Insubstantial Burdens: The Case for Government Employee Exemptions to Same-Sex Marriage Laws, in which she lamented that (at that point) “not a single state has shielded the government employee at the front line of same-sex marriage, such as the marriage registrar who, if she has a religious objection to same-sex marriage, will almost certainly face a test of conscience.” She concludes with what she believes to be a fair scenario: “Same-sex marriage applications comprise a miniscule part of the overall workload in the local marriage registrar’s office. If that office is staffed by three clerks, Faith, Hope, and Charity, and only Faith has a religious objection to assisting with same-sex marriage applications, allowing Faith to step aside when no hardship will result for same-sex couples is costless.” This, of course, ignores the vast implications of allowing a publicly-funded government employee to deny civil rights to citizens—not to mention the real threat of “Hope” and “Charity” following “Faith’s” lead. Wilson also took it a step further in her 2014 paper, Marriage of Necessity: Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty Protections, where she advocates for the Religious Right to focus on inserting its corrupted view of religious freedom into state laws.

Wilson is also famous for co-writing an op-ed in The Washington Post in 2014 with Bradford Wilcox, claiming that if women want to stop being sexually abused, they should just get married. Co-author Bradford Wilcox is currently the head of the Religious Right’s “National Marriage Project.” But until 2012 he was a director at the Witherspoon Institute, where he played an integral role in the creation of the thoroughly-debunked study by Mark Regnerus, which claimed that children of same-sex parents turn out much worse than children of opposite-sex parents. Wilcox not only acted as an advisor on the project, but was a paid consultant.

And speaking specifically about the Utah law she helped write, Wilson went so far as to lay out that “if the religious right does not believe that they are going to have those [religious exemption] protections, it cannot push forward the other rights.”

Wilson’s true motives in writing Utah’s “compromise” SB296 laws are clear.

LGBTQ supporters of the law are arguing that the religious exemptions in SB296 do not undermine the workplace/housing protections for LGBTQ people. But that misses the entire point of the critique of the bill. It didn’t matter what legalese actually went into the law. In fact, it behooved Wilson, the Mormon Church, ADF, and the other Religious Right actors to make the bill appear favorable to LGBTQ people who desperately need workplace and housing protections.

No, the real agenda was to obtain the endorsement of LGBTQ groups. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts currently being pushed through state legislatures, particularly in the South, are vulnerable to court challenges. But now that the Religious Right has high-profile endorsements of their false framework of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights being opposed to each other, unfortunately, the ability of LGBTQ activists and organizations to oppose RFRAs and other efforts to codify discrimination—all dressed up in the language of “religious freedom”—has been curtailed.

[1] Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

Utah LGBTQ Rights Bill a Trojan Horse for Religious Right’s Agenda

Posted By on March 17, 2015

**Original published at LGBTQ Nation magazine and The New Civil Rights Movement**

There were both cheers and tears as many in the Utah LGBTQ community celebrated the passage of a workplace and housing nondiscrimination law in the conservative Utah legislature. But behind closed doors, I suspect it’s actually the leaders of the Religious Right who are cheering the hardest.

As someone who began as an activist in the Utah LGBTQ community, and fought for years alongside countless others for full workplace and housing protections, I was overjoyed at the possibility that 2015 might finally be the year we stepped closer to equality. Too many LGBTQ Utahns, myself included, have faced that discrimination firsthand. But once the legislation was unveiled, my heart sank. While there is much to be happy with in the legislation, and the protections it offers to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the Beehive State, the law also contains a tiny Trojan Horse individual religious exemptions clause.

The Utah bill is being called a “model” to be used in states around the nation, but we must be forewarned. The individual religious exemption in the law, as small and seemingly noninvasive as it is, could put the civil liberties of everyone at stake for decades to come.

Religious freedom is important, and as a principle has existed since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The 13 original colonies were a fractured bunch of near-theocracies, with various Christian sects dominating different colonies—to the detriment of anyone not a member of the particular sect in power locally. Thanks to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the principle of religious freedom in the Constitution set in motion of the disestablishment of the state churches, and the advantages they held in the public sphere. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which predated the Constitution and was the first such law to be enacted in the world, said one’s beliefs or non-beliefs cannot “enhance, diminish, or impact” one’s “civil capacity.” Individuals were shielded from the tyranny of churches who had previously sought to force them to adhere to their beliefs, and religions were shielded from governments elevating one religion over another.

It has taken us a long time to make it work and, in truth, we are still working on it.

But the Religious Right has launched a campaign to redefine the meaning of religious liberty, stripping away those protections and once again giving religions the power to circumscribe the rights of individual conscience.

This coalition, led by right-wing groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Liberty Counsel, is systematically working the courts and state legislatures to enact religious exemptions—essentially a right of religious institutions and individuals to decide which laws they will or will not follow.

In practical terms, this could play out as a business owner invoking faith to deny service to a LGBTQ couple, or refusing to hire Jewish employees. Or a man refusing to promote women to managerial positions because he doesn’t believe men should be subservient to women. We cannot allow such freedom of conscience to become a legal sanction for these and other forms of discrimination.

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks receives a "religious freedom" award from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks (right) receives a “religious freedom” award from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

One of the Religious Right leaders heavily involved in this campaign is Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ (Mormon) senior leaders and member of their Quorum of 12 Apostles. The Mormon church frequently finds itself at odds with members of other faiths who don’t believe it to be a true Christian religioun. However, unlike some of his brethren in the all-male leadership, Oaks is deeply involved in the work with the Religious Right. He sits on the board of the international culture warring organization World Congress of Families. He received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty from the Becket Fund. In speeches before conservative groups, Oaks frequently extols the benefits of individuals being able to using their faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws.

That’s why, when just a few weeks ago Oaks held a press conference to announce that he and the Mormon church were ready to endorse a statewide nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ people if only the leaders of the local LGBTQ community would sit down and negotiate a “compromise,” many were suspicious.

Oaks was up front about what he was looking for. He and other leaders of the Mormon church enumerated the religious exemptions they wanted included with a nondiscrimination law, including a right for government and health care workers to deny service to LGBTQ people.

SB296, the bill that resulted from those negotiations, was hailed by equality groups and the Mormon church as a “historic compromise” of nondiscrimination and religious freedom. The bill does indeed ban workplace and housing discrimination against LGBTQ people in Utah. But buried underneath those important protections, is a small clause guaranteeing the right of individuals to express faith-based anti-LGBTQ views at work.

It’s a small exemption. Seemingly inconsequential in comparison to the benefits the new law could bring. Viewed purely as a standalone piece of legislation, SB296 does a lot more good than bad and it’s unsurprising to see so many social justice-minded people supporting it.

But the equality movement cannot survive if we view legislation through a short-term and narrow lens. To do so is to ignore the context of the long-term consequences of the Religious Right’s national agenda—which only needs to get a foot in the door to get the ball rolling.

Oaks’ goal with the nondiscrimination law was not to pass full individual religious exemptions all at once. To use the analogy of the unfortunate amphibian, the frog will jump out of the pot if put directly into boiling water. But turn the heat up slowly, and the frog cooked to death. For the LGBTQ community to endorse the Religious Right’s corrupt redefined version of religious freedom, even in this one seemingly minor way, opens the door for the expansion of religious exemptions in both breadth and number.

And as if to confirm this suspicion as quickly as possible, within two hours of the “compromise” SB296 passing the Utah legislature, conservatives in the Utah House of Representatives had also passed two other bills that had not been part of the negotiations: one granting county clerks the right to refuse to perform any marriage they opposed on religious grounds, and the other paving the way for full individual religious exemptions in the public marketplace.

It’s a victory for the Right not only in the success of imposing their agenda into law, but in winning the larger PR battle at a critical moment in time.

As I discussed in Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBTQ Gains, the Mormon church has only ever given in to pressure by the LGBTQ community when its back is against the wall in a public relations battle. After months of heavy protesting over their involvement in California’s Prop 8, they endorsed a municipal nondiscrimination law in Salt Lake City in 2009. In 2010, after 2nd-in-command Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer claimed that there was no way God would allow people to be born gay, protests around the church’s headquarters garnered international attention and prompted Packer’s comments to be officially stricken from the church’s records.

So why did the Mormon church unexpectedly come to the table? Could it be a delayed response to their highly-publicized excommunication of faithful feminist members for asking for a public discussion about why the patriarchal church does not allow female leadership? Unlikely, that was months ago and the discussion has largely died down.

A more plausible explanation is the forthcoming World Congress of Families (WCF) event scheduled for Salt Lake City in October. The international coalition of U.S. culture warriors held a conference last year in Moscow—their name was removed just before the conference started to prevent negative publicity over the situation in Ukraine—where attendees unanimously voted to urge their home countries—like the United States—to pass laws modeled on the Russian anti-LGBTQ law. (That law criminalizes any positive speech about LGBTQ people under the guise of protecting children from “propaganda.”)

WCF attendees and other U.S. conservatives, such as Rick Warren, Sharon Slater, Brian Brown and others, are known around the world for their work in exporting the culture wars abroad, which has resulted in outcomes like the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Dallin H. Oaks is a member of the WCF board of directors.

Thanks to Oaks’ work in helping to pass the “compromise” legislation, the WCF and the Religious Right’s goal of codifying their redefined version of religious freedom into law has taken a giant step forward. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there’s no shutting it.

 

**RELATED: The Religious Right Operative Who Co-Wrote Utah’s Nondiscrimination Law

Utah GOP Lawmakers Blame Outrage Over Rape Comments on the Press

Posted By on February 5, 2015

Utah GOP Representatives Curt Oda (left) and Ken Ivory (right)

Utah Republican Representatives Curt Oda (left) and Ken Ivory (right)

After one of their own faced a severe backlash this week for implying that having sex with an unconscious spouse isn’t really rape, some Utah Republican legislators are circling the wagons—blaming the outrage on the media.

Utah state representative Brian Greene (Republican – Pleasant Grove) touched off a firestorm this week when he commented on a proposed law that clarifies that sex with an unconscious person is always rape. “If an individual has sex with their wife while she is unconscious … a prosecutor could then charge that spouse with rape, theoretically,” said Greene.”That makes sense in a first date scenario, but to me, not where people have a history of years of sexual activity.”

Those comments have gone viral, appearing everywhere from the Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Political Capitolto The New York Times,  and the Daily Mail in London.

Greene walked back his statements in a private email to all of his fellow lawmakers Wednesday evening. He apologized for “any embarrassment to this Body that my statements have caused.” And said that he was simply trying to demonstrate “how changing that statutory language by removing the element of consent might have some unintended consequences.”

But rather than siding with those who may have felt hurt or betrayed by the remarks, some of Greene’s Republican colleagues in the Utah House of Representatives replied (cc-ing all state lawmakers) that the blame for the outrage should rest with the press, rather than Greene.

“Don’t let it get you down. Media sensationalism,” said Representative Curt Oda (Republican – Clearfield).

“Media taking things out of context to sell papers,” added Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan).

 

 

Democrats & Religious Leaders Announce Bill Creating “Religious Freedom Day” in Utah

Posted By on January 20, 2015

**Originally published on Utah Political Capitol**

Brian King RFDUtah House Democrats and local religious leaders held a press conference Friday afternoon to announce legislation designating January 16th in Utah as Religious Freedom Day, honoring the first religious freedom law in the country.

In 1786, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed into law the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom Law. It was written by Thomas Jefferson a year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and was ushered into law by James Madison a year before he became one of the principle authors of the U.S. Constitution.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is widely regarded as the taproot of how the framers of the Constitution approached matters of religion and government, and was as revolutionary as the era in which it was written—during a time when the framers were fighting to create one nation out of 13 fractious colonies which were still finding their way after a successful revolt against the British Empire and contending with a growing and religiously diverse population.

The law disestablished the Anglican Church as the official church of Virginia, and provided that individuals are free to believe or not believe as they will and that this “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” In other words, what you believe or don’t believe cannot be used as a litmus test by government or government’s agents to deny you civil services.

House Minority Leader Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City), who is authoring the legislation honoring the 229 year old law, along with Reverend Patty Willis of South Valley Unitarian, Pastor Curtis Price of the First Baptist Church, and Sheryl Ginsburg of the Jewish Congregation of Kol Ami, say it is important to remember that original meaning of religious freedom, because the rights the law proscribes are now being threatened.

“Religious Freedom means the right of individuals to believe or not believe whatever they choose, without the fear of powerful institutions dictating what they must think,” said King.

January 16th has already been set aside on the national level by Congress, who designated the day as Religious Freedom Day in 1992. It was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, and has been renewed by presidential proclamation by Presidents Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama each year since.

“Religious Freedom was designed as a shield to protect the rights of individuals over the rights of powerful institutions like the government or religions. What we are seeing now is a coordinated effort to strip individuals of their freedom, and tell them that government and governments’ agents can mandate what they need to believe in order to access civic services,” says King, alluding to recent attempts in various states to pass religious freedom laws that don’t necessarily align with the definition of religious freedom espoused by Jefferson and Madison.

HB 66 – Marriage Modifications, being proposed by Representative Jacob Anderegg (Republican – Lehi), was mentioned by King as an example of a bill opposed to the original definition of religious freedom. The bill is in response to the recent court cases which have allowed same-sex marriages in Utah. If successful, the legislation would allow any government agent empowered to perform civil marriages to refuse to perform a civil ceremony on the basis of faith (either the agent’s or the the couple’s). Under current Utah law, religious leaders are already exempt, and cannot be forced to perform religious ceremonies under any circumstances, but Anderegg’s bill would go a step further and exempt government officials as well. King, who is LDS himself, strongly disagrees and says there should be a bright line between religious leaders acting in their religious capacities, and government agents acting on official business.

“The right of individual conscience must be held paramount,” says King. “No citizen of Utah should ever be denied a governmental service because of their beliefs or non-beliefs, or because of the beliefs or non-beliefs of any governmental employee. No one who is Catholic should ever be denied service because a government agent is Baptist, no LDS person can be denied services because a government agent is Protestant. No Athiest can be denied service because a government agent is Evangelical. No person of Jewish faith can be denied services because a government agent is Catholic. We are a country founded on religious pluralism, where every individual has the right to choose what to believe and what to not believe.”

Copy of Representative King’s proposed legislation, which has not been submitted yet so does not have a bill file number:

 

Utah Religious Freedom Day HCR

A Most Sacred Trust – The Line Between Lawmaker & Paid Lobbyist?

Posted By on December 30, 2014

**This article was originally published on Utah Political Capitol**

Representative Ken Ivory (R) and his wife Becky recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the floor of the Utah House.

Representative Ken Ivory (R) and his wife Becky recite the Pledge of Allegiance on the floor of the Utah House.

Where is the line between acting as a lawmaker on behalf of your constituents, and acting as a paid lobbyist? As the 2015 legislative session draws near, one Representative on Utah’s Capitol Hill may be drawing near it.

On November 10, 2014, a new Utah nonprofit was registered under the name “A Most Sacred Trust,” its tax status was approved only 6 weeks later, on December 22. The group advertises its mission as being to “restore trust in our school system by educating children, parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators about the realities of sexual abuse in our schools and how we can protect both children, and the adults who educate them, by establishing a safer system for all”—a laudable goal, to be sure.

Their website, mostsacredtrust.org, encourages visitors to financially support the organization, accepting both one-time and monthly monetary commitments.

The group is also touting that they have three pieces of legislation that will be run in the 2015 legislative session, which begins at the end of January—no small feat when you consider the number of nonprofits, special interests, lobbyists, corporations, and citizens in the state which would love to have their agendas promoted with legislation, and that most bills take months of work, planning, and effort before making it onto the list of proposed laws to be heard.

So how did the fledgling organization manage to get their goals before the legislature so quickly? According to tax and business filings with the state, the president of A Most Sacred Trust is Becky Ivory, wife of Representative Ken Ivory (Republican – West Jordan). The organization was registered under the name of Representative Ivory’s personal law firm, Ivory Law P.C., and all of the group’s legislation is being run by Representative Ivory himself.

This isn’t the first time the Ivorys have created an organization related to the Representative’s legislation. Representative Ivory has developed a name for himself over the past few years by pushing legislation that would forcibly take control of public lands in the state away from the United States, and turn them over to the Utah legislature to decide whether to keep or sell them. The legislation has resulted in massive disagreements between supporters of a Utah-takeover of U.S. lands and environmental groups and scholars who say the constitution does not grant individual states the authority to force the U.S. to turn over land that is being supported by tax dollars from all over the country.

In the case of the public lands takeover, Representatives Ivory and Becky Ivory created another nonprofit, called the American Lands Council, where Ken serves as President and Becky as Communications Director—both draw a salary from the company, and Representative Ivory listed ALC as his occupation when he filed for re-election. As Representative Ivory’s legislation has caught fire in local and national media, it has opened the door for him to travel all over western states under the American Lands Council banner, giving paid speaking presentations to conferences, special interests, and other lawmakers. According to its most recent 990 forms, in 2012 the American Lands Council brought in just over $122,000 thanks largely to the publicity around Representative Ivory’s own legislation.

Is there an ethical issue with a lawmaker and his spouse creating situations where they directly make a living off of the legislation they run?

“I don’t see a conflict,” Representative Ivory told Utah Political Capitol in a phone interview. “My wife is a constituent, just like how several of my other constituents have organizations or businesses working on problems. My job is simply to solve the problems.” According to Representative Ivory, it makes no difference whether or not he and his family benefit financially from the issue.

To be sure, child sex abuse in schools is a worthwhile cause, and one very personal to Becky Ivory herself. On her biography on the Most Sacred Trust website, she describes how she herself was abused by a teacher for several years during Middle School. She told UPC “It took me 11 years before I was finally brave enough to go to my school district and tell them what had happened. … They fired [the accused teacher], but then hired them back two years later without even telling me or talking to me about it.”

Like Representative Ivory, Mrs. Ivory says she sees no conflict in having him run legislation that could directly benefit their family financially. Because the organization is so new, she says, there is not yet a steady stream of donations coming in, so for now it is an all-volunteer operation. “I wish there was a salary. Maybe someday,” she added. “If we can get more attention, then maybe we can get to that point.”

The Utah legislature’s rules about conflicts of interest and members financially benefiting from their own legislation are pretty murky. In fact, situations similar to the Ivorys’ have happened in the past, says House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes (Republican – Draper).

“We’ve had spouses involved in public policy before,” says Hughes, pointing to outgoing House Speaker Becky Lockhart (Republican – Provo). Speaker Lockhart’s husband, Stan Lockhart, lobbied for STEM digital learning programs as well as IM Flash Technologies while Speaker Lockhart was serving, earning them significant personal wealth between the two accounts. “We didn’t ban Stan from the Hill,” says Hughes. “As long as it’s disclosed and in the light of day, I don’t see a problem with it.”

But Representative Stephen Handy (Republican – Layton), who serves as co-chair of the House Ethics Committee, says the situation with the Ivorys’ new business could cause “a bomb” among his fellow lawmakers. “I don’t know if its an ethical violation or not. But we have to be really careful and be concerned about the public trust.” He also added that while he has a high personal level of respect for Representative Ivory, “as both a legislator and a citizen, I think the level of transparency is going to be a big question.”

The text and precise content of Representative Ivory’s legislation on behalf of A Most Sacred Trust is not yet publicly available, but Becky Ivory assured UPC that “there will be no [public] money allocated to [A Most Sacred Trust.]” However, if the Ivorys’ American Lands Council serves as a model, then the new legislation could drive a lot of public interest in the organization, which means higher donations and potentially new speaking engagements around the country, which means more revenue for the Ivorys, which means more legislation around the country, which means more revenue, etc.

Where’s the line between acting like an elected official and acting as a paid lobbyist? Does it make a difference if the cause is a really good one? Utah could be about to find out.

Same-Sex Marriage and the Assault on Religious Freedom

Posted By on October 25, 2014

**Originally published on Utah Politico Hub

Could religious organizations be forced to perform same-sex weddings? The hysterical panic surrounding an Idaho wedding chapel certainly seems to suggest so. But as always, if you’ll forgive the pun, the devil is the details and the story is little more exaggerated hype.

Conservatives have long used the fear of religious liberty being violated as a weapon against LGBTQ civil liberties. In Utah, that’s included claims that if same-sex couples were granted their constitutional right to civil weddings, the LDS church would be forced to perform same-sex weddings in temples or face massive lawsuits and government fines. But is religious liberty actually under attack, as we are being led to believe?

The short answer is yes. Religious liberty and religious freedom is being eroded across the nation, but not in the way we are being told.

Religious liberty is one of the founding principles of a nation that was born out of an escape from the state-imposed Church of England. It was designed to protect all individuals, allowing them to believe (or not believe) whatever they wished—giving us the freedom to choose to be Catholic, Baptist, LDS, Atheist, or any other set of beliefs we so choose—free from the power of institutions (like religions, corporations, and government) to force us to comply with imposed beliefs.

It’s a principle both liberals and conservatives hold equally sacred. And it’s why all citizens of Utah should be deeply concerned about proposals being made by lawmakers who want to exempt public employees and corporations from civil rights laws.

Representative Jacob Anderegg (R-Lehi) has announced that he will seek to write a new law that would allow public employees like county clerks to refuse to perform same-sex marriages if their religious beliefs say that being LGBTQ is a sin. It’s also expected that this coming legislative session will see a proposal for the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” a model bill being promoted by the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly known as the Alliance Defense Fund) in state legislatures across the country. The Act would allow private businesses, such as restaurants, to refuse service and/or employment to LGBTQ people if they feel their religious beliefs dictate they should do so.

Why should all religious and non-religious Utahns be terrified of such proposals? We’ve seen this all before. The same language was floated (and in some cases passed into law temporarily) back during the civil rights movement 50 years ago. White business owners claimed that their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to put up “Whites Only” signs. County Clerks said their religious beliefs meant that they should have the right to refuse to marry interracial couples because they believed God found them to be an abomination.

We, as a country, rejected those nonsense arguments. We recognized that religious liberty meant the right of an individual to believe whatever they choose, but when you are acting on behalf of the government or when you are acting as a business, you must treat all people equally. You, as an individual, may believe that God finds interracial couples to be an abomination, but that doesn’t mean your business or your government has the right to violate that couple’s civil rights just because they believe differently.

True religious freedom relies on religious pluralism—the recognition that everyone in the country has the right to believe (or not believe) whatever they choose without fear of being persecuted for those beliefs.

Religions do not fall in that category. A religion has the right to set its own standards and rules. If the LDS Church chooses not to perform same-sex weddings, that is firmly within their rights to do so. But a restaurant or a car dealership isn’t a religion, and while the business owners may have personal beliefs, their business cannot act as a religion and violate the religious freedom of those who have different beliefs.

Exemptions beget exemptions. If Representative Anderegg’s proposal to hand out exemptions in the case of LGBTQ people is successful, there will be nothing to stop an Evangelical business owner to claim that their religious beliefs say that LDS people are sinful and fire all Mormon employees. There will be nothing to stop a male business owner from claiming that his religious beliefs say that women should always be subservient to men, and refuse any promotions to female employees.

Religious liberty is precious, and to be protected at all costs. But redefining that freedom from its true meaning, from a shield for individuals into a sword for institutions to wield, puts all of us at risk.

The hype around the Idaho Hitching Post wedding chapel is little more than a red herring, meant to scare us all into turning our eyes away from what is really happening. ADF may be screaming that the pastors of the Hitching Post are facing fines and jail time to gain media attention, but the city of Coeur d’Alene has repeatedly confirmed that no such threats were ever made, and even the ACLU has confirmed that the Hitching Post is a religious business, performing only religious ceremonies, and is completely exempt from non-discrimination laws.

Non-discrimination laws do one thing, they level the playing field for everyone—neither promoting nor disparaging individuals’ beliefs. Straight business owners cannot discriminate against people for being LGBTQ, and LGBTQ business owners cannot discriminate against people for being straight.

Despite the daily rhetoric we’re being flooded with, the battle for the meaning of religious liberty is not between Christianity and secularism, but between pluralism and authoritarianism. However strong their convictions may be, the Right’s campaign is less about religious liberty than it is about winning the government-backed right to impose their religious beliefs on others. The Framers called that tyranny.

Utah Social Security Finally Relents – Grants Same-Sex Couples Benefits

Posted By on October 14, 2014

After denying benefits to legally married same-sex couples for over a week, SSA is now calling the couples and telling them to come back in.

1,300 same-sex couples were married in Utah between December 2013 and January 2014, during the brief window where marriage equality was legal before the U.S. Supreme Court imposed a stay on Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that banning the marriages was unconstitutional.

That stay left the couples’ benefits, including federal marriage benefits like Social Security, on hold. But as of October 6th, when SCOTUS rejected 7 marriage cases, including Utah’s, LGBTQ couples were once again free to marry.

But as we have reported, while state agencies were ordered to immediately begin processing benefits equally, the Utah Social Security offices continued to deny couples–even when threatened with a federal lawsuit.

Salt Lake City Social Security Offices

Late Friday, October 10th, one of the newlywed couples received an email from Sean Brune, Regional Commissioner for the SSA. In his email he said:

Today we published policy update RM10212.035, Evidence of Name Change based on a US Same-Sex Marriage. This update instructs our offices to accept marriage documents issued to same-sex couples for marriages that took place on 10/6/2014 or later by jurisdictions (town, county or State) in the State of Utah as evidence of a name change. We are still awaiting instruction on marriage documents issued in Utah prior to 10/6/2014.

In other words, SSA would now accept same-sex marriages in Utah for couples married on or after SCOTUS’ 10/6/2014 decision, but the 1,300 couples married earlier were still on hold.

It now seems that last restriction has been lifted. “I just received a call from the Salt Lake City [Social Security] office,” says Austin Vance, who delivered a letter threatening the federal lawsuit from his lawyer to the SSA offices last week. “They told me they have just released a new directive, and we can now go in, confirm our address, and they will issue us the new [Social Security] cards.”

Calls to several of the other previously-denied couples confirmed that they received similar calls.

Social Security has continued to refuse to comment on why or how the delay happened. Clerks had told the couples that they “needed to figure out the process,” but given that SSA uses a federal database that was updated 15 months ago to accommodate for legally married LGBTQ couples, that explanation makes no sense.

 

Eric Ethington has been specializing in political messaging, communications strategy, and public relations for more than a decade. Originally hailing from Salt Lake City, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. Eric’s writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Telegraph, LGBTQ Nation, and The Public Eye magazine. He’s worked as a radio host, pundit, reporter, activist and electoral campaign strategist. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington. He also writes at NuanceStillMatters.com