People and institutions with traditional religious beliefs about marriage, family, gender, and sexuality face unprecedented challenges. The culture is rapidly becoming more secular as affiliation with traditional religious institutions declines. According to Gallup, in 1999 70 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. Two decades later, that number has dropped to 47 percent. Fewer than half of Americans are members of a house of worship.
The precipitous drop in formal religious affiliation roughly tracks the culture’s widespread embrace of same-sex marriage and expansive LGBT rights. Spurred on by compelling accounts of love, loyalty, and hardship, public support for legal same-sex marriage now stands at 67 percent (31 percent opposed), and nondiscrimination protections for LGBT persons in employment command support from about 90 percent of Americans. Corporate, media, academic, and professional leaders now strongly support expansive LGBT rights with few if any reservations. By contrast, protections for longstanding religious freedoms are routinely defamed as a “license to discriminate.” Some faith communities are revising teachings on marriage and sexuality to better accommodate LGBT perspectives.
These tectonic cultural and social shifts are both the cause and effect of equally massive political changes. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell holding that same-sex marriage is a federal constitutional right and the Court’s 2020 Bostock decision establishing LGBT employment rights have dramatically changed the cultural and political landscape for religious freedom. Obergefell and Bostock mean that LGBT rights are already a permanent part of our constitutional and civil rights law. The question now is whether those rights will be harmonized with religious rights or trample them.
Recognition of these stark realities does not require faith communities to deny God’s truth about gender or sexuality, much less endorse the many misconceptions of popular culture. Our loyalty is first to God, even as we acknowledge the second great commandment to love our neighbor. At the heart of all the changes in our culture is the desire of our LGBT neighbors—made in the image of God—for love, belonging, equality, and dignity.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that every man and woman is a beloved son or daughter of God, and that gender is an essential element of our eternal identity. We hold as a core doctrine that God has ordained that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual relationships are reserved solely for marriage. The power of procreation is sacred, and husbands and wives have a divine duty to be faithful to each other and to love, nurture, teach, and protect their children. We believe the traditional family is central to God’s plan for his children. These doctrines and the many sacred practices and ceremonies that flow from them are central to our lives, identities, and dignity. They define and constitute us as individuals, families, and a faith community. Many other religious traditions have similarly fixed teachings about marriage. Modern culture cannot alter these God-given truths.
But these are not the only truths relevant to our current challenges. The command to love our neighbor is powerful, and it has far-reaching implications for how we treat LGBT individuals. We believe moral agency, or free will, is also foundational to God’s purposes. Acceptance of truth and God’s will must occur freely and should never be coerced. It took centuries of bloodshed for feuding branches of Christianity to recognize this, but when they did, it paved the way for both religious freedom and deep friendships across religious lines. Likewise, while reasonable policy measures to support the traditional family remain essential, we cannot legally coerce acceptance of God’s truth about marriage, sexuality, and gender. And we must never forget that as Christians we are called to be peacemakers.
Religious Freedom under Fire
Unfortunately, the Equality Act is not about making peace, respecting differences, or even solely about protecting LGBT civil rights. Recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, the bill is an aggressive attack on religious organizations, schools, charities, and the millions of people of faith and others who rely on those institutions. Unlike past LGBT rights proposals, such as the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), and unlike nearly all state LGBT nondiscrimination laws, the Equality Act contains no religious protections or exemptions. None. On the contrary, the Equality Act expressly undermines religious freedom by exempting itself from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The Equality Act directly threatens the longstanding freedom of religious organizations and schools to hire based on religious criteria—a right vital to their very existence. It would strip faith communities of control over their own sacred properties, even houses of worship, merely for welcoming visitors or serving members of the public. Religious schools and colleges, which serve tens of thousands of under-privileged students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, would be denied Pell grants, guaranteed student loans, and other critical federal aid because of their religious beliefs and standards related to marriage. This would devastate religious education. The Equality Act would likewise deny funding to numerous faith-based charities with religious hiring policies or religious standards necessary to address the distinct needs of men and women. These charities serve hundreds of thousands of desperate and needy people each year. There are no viable replacements for their essential work.
Some of the sweeping effects of the Equality Act have nothing to do with LGBT protections and appear to be directed at religious organizations and their adherents. For example, an all-girls religious school serving underprivileged students would be ineligible for federal lunch program assistance. Synagogues and mosques that have separate prayer areas for men and women would be ineligible for federal security grants. With the rise in violent attacks on houses of worship, this is not only punitive but also dangerous.
The Case for Mitigation and a Reasonable Settlement
The Equality Act is a clear and present danger to religious freedom. Unfortunately, it is also one of the highest priorities of the majority in both houses of Congress and the White House. It has twice passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It might well pass the Senate as-is but for the filibuster, and many in Congress and the White House are now attacking the filibuster for that very reason. Advocates for the Equality Act have vast resources and, as confirmed by recent court decisions, cultural winds continue to push the narrative in the direction of LGBT nondiscrimination rights.
The time has come for people of faith to acknowledge reality and seek a resolution that protects both LGBT civil rights and religious liberty. The opportunity to be champions of religious freedom, opponents of invidious discrimination, and peacemakers lies before us. Most Americans favor protecting LGBT people from discrimination in the marketplace. Most Americans also favor protecting religious freedom, but they will be less willing to do so if they see our religious freedom claims as an excuse for permanently denying the reasonable demands of LGBT citizens. Moreover, despite the hostility of some professional LGBT advocates—who may never be satisfied—few LGBT people want to harm religious liberty or faith communities. Many are themselves deeply religious. The vast majority merely want the same civil rights protections that religious people already enjoy—legal protections against unjust discrimination so they can get a job, a place to live, and safely go about their lives.
Failure to mitigate the Equality Act will be a disaster for religious freedom and the faith community. This grim truth cannot be overstated. It requires constructive engagement now.
A Serious Alternative
Fortunately, serious alternatives to the implausible “just say no” strategy already exist. The Fairness for All Act of 2021, introduced in the House earlier this year, protects LGBT civil rights in employment, housing, public accommodations, and federal programs. But in stark contrast with the Equality Act, it also safeguards RFRA’s powerful religious protections and provides targeted exemptions in especially sensitive areas like religious employment, sacred properties, and religious education.
Developed with religion-friendly LGBT groups, the FFA Act is a serious effort to reach a sustainable and balanced resolution while there’s still time. Such an approach has the potential to mitigate a destructive cultural conflict that is rapidly undermining religious freedom and the critical influence of traditional faith communities.
Establishing a fair and reasonable settlement in this fraught area will not be easy, but it can and must be done. There is no viable alternative. The faith community cannot abandon its religious beliefs and practices, but neither can it win a war of political attrition. Perpetuating this conflict will only inflict grave injury on our ability to teach and bear witness of God’s truth—and to hand down our faith to our children. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said. It is time to do the hard work of making peace before it’s too late.