It is often said that one should never discuss religion or politics in good company. However, with HB 322 up for discussion in the Utah Legislature both topics come hand-in-hand these days.
This bill, sponsored in the house by Rep. LaVar Christensen (R-Draper) expands religious freedom protection for individuals and organizations that operate according to a specific set of religious guidelines. It also reaffirms guidelines to prevent discrimination in employment and housing.
Main provisions of HB 322 include:
- “adds religious liberty provisions to the Utah Antidiscrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act”
- “perfect toleration of religious sentiment is guaranteed and that rights of conscience shall never be infringed”
- “defines the act’s relation to housing and employment regulations”
- “establishes that a person’s lawful exercise of religious liberty under the act is a recognized defense to claims of discrimination”
The bill is being touted as the “compromise” that would allow LGBT anti-discrimination provisions and religious freedom protection to proceed together as law. This after the LDS Church urged a marrying of the two issues during a press conference back in January.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated,
“Today, state legislatures across the nation are being asked to strengthen laws related to LGBT issues in the interest of ensuring fair access to housing and employment. The leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on record as favoring such measures.”
But not everyone is so easily convinced of the bill’s magnanimity. Groups like Equality Utah assert the bill would allow for increased discrimination under the guise of Constitutional freedom.
Equality Utah executive director, Troy Williams said in the Salt Lake Tribune,
“not only would he be able to discriminate against gay and transgender people, but also against African-Americans, Jews, women and anyone else he thinks is a sinner.”
There is also concern by critics of the bill of the absence of language referring specifically to “sexual orientation” as it relates to the anti-discrimination provision. Without specific reference to LGBT individuals it is unlikely the bill will receive bipartisan support.
Concerns like those from Mr. Williams reveal the attitude many have toward religion in society. There is a tendency to assume religion is the culprit when it comes to public expression or even mention of religious themes.
The large majority of religious people simply don’t “pick and choose” which laws to follow or avoid. The fact that not all parts of civil society may fall in line with deeply held beliefs of both religious and non-religious people is one for which culture and society should accommodate-especially since religious freedom protection is inherent to the First of Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
Thirty-one states currently have heightened religious freedom protections, and Utah is not one of them. Many of these laws emphasize the “right of conscience,” or the freedom to believe according to your conscience and act accordingly. All people, religious or otherwise benefit from being able to express their beliefs and values freely and without persecution or legal recourse.
HB 322 is a step in the right direction. It reverses the trend of laying the legal burden of proof upon religious people in cases where their beliefs or practices are seemingly in violation of the law. It seeks to switch the mentality that religious people are always seeking exemptions when that is something they should never have to do to begin with.