An investigative report released Wednesday by Deseret News faith writer Kelsey Dallas identifies and analyzes 139 state bills across the country pertaining to the place of faith in the public square. The number of bills that have surfaced this year isn’t as important as the fact that states are engaging in the arduous process of carving out spaces for multiple groups to live according to their conscience.
The investigative report comes on the heels of last week’s Supreme Court decision affirming that Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips and his beliefs should be treated with respect.
Some have disparaged the court’s decision — or, as they see it, its nondecision — because it left sweeping judgments and rule-making for another day. That’s a good thing, as it allows the laboratories of democracy to forge their own compromises more tailored to their circumstances than a federal mandate could be.
The ruling shows approaching rights and civil liberties with tolerance and compassion is the higher way, but it came at an unfortunate time when a growing number of people equate religious liberty with being anti-gay.
That’s a false equation.
As Wednesday’s report indicates, protecting the liberty of all citizens extends far beyond the LGBT community and the religious community. And the two are not mutually exclusive. Only eight of the 139 bills identified deal with service refusals similar to the Masterpiece Cakeshop situation. And 37 bills focus on protecting LGBT rights. The remaining 94 bills cover topics ranging from faith’s role in public speech to adoption services and the intersection of religion and health care.
The sad truth, however, is partisanship has taken its toll on the idea of shared freedom, with mostly Republicans signing on to legislation protecting religious belief while mainly Democrats have championed protections for LGBT rights.
Civil, constitutionally protected rights shouldn’t belong to a party. The freedom to worship and participate in society is fundamental to a thriving republic, and it’s each American’s responsibility to honor and protect constitutional rights that predate our current politics.
With partisanship comes one-sided legislation that fails to negotiate protections for multiple groups.
“When you have one-sided deals, there's a high risk that civil rights will be perceived as a game of 'Pong,' with rights given and then taken back or rights for one side followed by different rights for the other,” Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois College of Law, told the Deseret News.32 comments on this story
For the time being, states will be responsible to ensure fairness for all. What’s the path forward for all sides to craft legislation that encompasses a plurality of protections?
One step is simply avoiding language that denigrates another group. Criticizing sponsors of legislation as bigots, fanatics or snowflakes puts unhelpful labels on people whose rights are worth protecting. Reasonable accommodations and narrowly tailored language will also help states inch toward a healthy balance.
It’s good to see states wrestling with these difficult issues. A commitment to civility and a spirit of compromise will see to it that all Americans receive the liberty they deserve.