Fairness for All: Evangelicals Explore Truce on LGBT and Religious Rights
Image: Biola University

Among the many unanswered questions going into a new year and new government led by Donald Trump, American evangelicals await the prospects for the tense back-and-forth between religious liberty and LGBT rights.

The conflict took on new urgency in 2016, with a wave of state-level religious freedom and antidiscrimination bills amid the ongoing fallout from the US Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

In one case, panic over an earlier version of California’s antidiscrimination law, then known as Senate Bill 1146, woke up evangelical leaders to worst-case fears: that faith-based colleges could be targeted and penalized for standard practices like hiring faculty within their faith tradition or requiring students to agree to a moral behavior code.

“SB 1146 gained national attention and media interest because it was unprecedented and because California is seen by many as a bellwether state that often inspires similar legislation elsewhere,” wrote Biola University president Barry H. Corey in a letter to fellow members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). “This is not the last bill but just the first one, and future legislation could reach beyond California and beyond higher education institutions.”

In recent months, the CCCU and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) have discreetly led the charge to get evangelical institutions to think through potential legal options to safeguard their Christian distinctives as they look ahead to 2017. They met with more than 200 leaders in 9 cities to discuss Fairness for All, an approach that would bring together religious liberty defenders and LGBT activists to lay out federal legislation to secure rights for both.

Currently, when those rights conflict, Americans are evenly split over who wins. For example, the Pew Research Center found this fall that 48 percent of Americans believe that owners of wedding-related businesses should be able to refuse services to same-sex couples if they have religious objections, while 49 percent of Americans believe those owners should be required to serve same-sex couples.

“What we’re looking at here is potentially a paradigm-shifting option,” said Shapri D. LoMaglio, the CCCU’s vice president for government and external relations. “The way that these two sets of rights have been talked about most often has been that they must compete. If something like this was to go forward, what might that mean about how we differently or better understand rights? Rights need not always be secured by one group at the expense of another group.”

[Note: Evangelical leaders including pastor and author Tim Keller, legal scholar John Inazu, and CT’s Mark Galli have similarly argued that civil rights are not a zero-sum equation, while CT has examined evangelicals’ favorite same-sex marriage laws.]

Fairness for All proponents have one state-level precedent on their side: the curious case of how conservative Utah was able to pass a comprehensive antidiscrimination measure endorsed by Mormon leaders and cheered on by LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign.

The 2015 Utah Compromise suggests that both sides of the debate actually get more of their priorities put into law when they work together than when legislated on their own or litigated in the courts.

“Rather than trying to replicate the exact jots and tittles of what Utah did, we’re looking at the idea that if you try to address both concerns on the front end, you can actually get a more comprehensive set of religious liberties than if LGBT rights moves forward on its own and you try to come in later in the game and attach religious liberties,” said LoMaglio.

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