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Jeffrey D. Allred,
Michael Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, addresses a conference for seniors at in Salt Lake City May 28, 2008. Jeffrey D. Allred/photo

SALT LAKE CITY — Can gay marriage be normalized without compromising religious liberty? This week in Utah, conservative icons speaking on the same night at two different venues hit this question head on, arriving at two different conclusions.

On one side was Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor who served in President George W. Bush's cabinet. Leavitt spoke Wednesday night at a Utah Valley University symposium.

On the other side was Princeton professor Robert P. George, who gave the keynote address at the Sutherland Institute annual dinner in Salt Lake the same night. Both George and Leavitt are members of the Deseret News Editorial Board.

For his part, George was in no mood to compromise. He acknowledged what he characterized as unusually harsh criticism levied on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members after the Proposition 8 fight in California but argued that the battle will and must go on.

“Some think we have lost," he said. "Some people think we should retreat from the fight for marriage and just fight for religious liberty. Folks, I’m here to tell you, if you lose the fight for marriage, there will be no protecting religious liberty.”

George is the past chairman of the National Organization for Marriage. He co-authored "What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense," which was published in 2012, and drafted the Manhattan Declaration, signed by Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders, which promised to resist "legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage," according to a New York Times article that dubbed him the "Conservative-Christian Big Thinker."

The core of George’s message on Wednesday was on the centrality of the family in a healthy society and economy. He got to the marriage issue only after arguing that those who try to separate social issues from economics will end up with neither.

The family is the “first and best Department of Health, Education and Welfare,” George said, and those who do not see the gay marriage conflict as part of a concerted assault on the family itself are deluded.

“It is difficult to think of any item on the domestic agenda that is more critical today than the defense of marriage as the union of husband and wife and the effort to renew and rebuild the marriage culture,” George said.

Leavitt, who also previously served as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, appeared to take the compromise position.

"If through democratic processes our nation recognizes gay marriage and protects sexual orientation as a civil right, it need not and must not do so at the expense of religious freedom," Leavitt said. "Gay marriage and religious freedom should co-exist."

Ironically, Leavitt's position also clearly laid out the rationale behind George’s warning. While Leavitt hoped and insisted that a stable compromise could hold, there were distinct notes of doubt in his message.

Politically, Leavitt argued, the gay marriage debate is essentially over and the only real fallback strategy is to defend religious liberty as a separate battle.

On a personal note, Leavitt noted the human complexity of the issue. He pointed to his friendship with Republican Sen. Rob Portman, whose support for his own gay son recently led him to shift his position on gay marriage. He also noted that as governor he had met with several parents of gay children, which led him to see the issue in more nuanced terms.

Leavitt laid out the apparent conflict between religious freedom and the normalization of gay marriage, drawing on his long-standing attachment to the issue stemming from his days at HHS, when he dealt with the struggles of health care providers trying to live their faith in their profession.

The problem, Leavitt said, is even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “free exercise” of religion, differing viewpoints and practices tend to be driven from the public square. “Free exercise” of religion then becomes “simply and solely the freedom to believe in the quiet of one’s own conscience, as long as the believer does not act on the belief in public,” Leavitt said.

“Under this counterfeit definition of free exercise, expressions of faith — or opinions informed by faith — are unwelcome in the public square,” Leavitt said. “Religion freedom is increasingly replaced by government restrictions. The list of examples has grown rapidly in recent years.”

Leavitt cited multiple examples of legal and regulatory hostility, including wedding photographers and cake makers who came under fire for declining to work for gay weddings, and nurses and medical students who were compelled to assist with abortions.

In addition to government restrictions, Leavitt cited overt hostility to religion from popular commentators. He pointed to talk show host Bill Maher, who has repeatedly spoken of believers in scathing terms, calling religion a "neurological disorder."

Leavitt devoted much of his address to countering Maher's assertion, laying out in some detail the role of religious faith in putting an end to slavery and in sparking the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Leavitt said the accommodation of gay marriage, now a political reality as he sees it, cannot be used as a wedge to drive religious institutions or individual believers from the public square.

“It is my firm belief that the free expression of religion and other interests can —and, indeed, must — co-exist,” he said.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].