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Orlin Wagner, Associated Press
Gov. Laura Kelly stands during inaugural ceremonies on the Statehouse steps in Topeka, Kan., on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Last year, Kansas legislators passed a law protecting faith-based adoption agencies, ensuring they could access government funds even if, for religious reasons, they turned away LGBT couples.

Now, the law is in limbo under the state's new Democratic governor, who says she'll do everything in her power to keep it from being enforced.

"If there is way to direct the agency to not implement that, then I will do that," said Gov. Laura Kelly during her first post-election news conference.

The statement doesn't surprise those involved in today's top religious freedom debates, which increasingly feature partisan clashes instead of compromise. Laws aimed at expanding either religious freedom or LGBT rights but not both are easy targets when power changes hands.

Orlin Wagner, Associated Press
Gov. Laura Kelly stands during inaugural ceremonies on the Statehouse steps in Topeka, Kan., on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

"Who is in the executive branch affects how (religious freedom) issues are adjudicated," said Tim Schultz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, which works on religious freedom policy across the country.

He compared the situation to a high-stakes game of pingpong, featuring Democrats and Republicans who want to slam the ball in each other's face. Instead of working together, lawmakers fight for the upper hand.

"The nature of political discussions has changed," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an advocacy group working to reduce entanglement between faith groups and the government.

If lawmakers put down their pingpong paddles and crafted policies that everyone was interested in upholding, it would help religious freedom and LGBT rights advocates alike, Schultz said.

"The only realistic way we're going to resolve these issues is … to find solutions that seek as much common ground as possible," he said.

Lopsided legislation

What Schultz supports is legislation that gives each side in a debate 90 or 95 percent of what they want, instead of going all in on one group's demands. He cites the Utah compromise, a pair of laws passed in March 2015 that simultaneously protected the LGBT community and religious objectors to same-sex marriage, as an example.

"Other states can't cut and paste" the Utah legislation, he said, but they can "export the spirit of what Utah did."

That spirit is in short supply during an era of intense polarization, as the Deseret News reported last year. Today's religious freedom bills are mostly one-sided, protecting one group of people without worrying about those who are potentially harmed.

Newly elected leaders continued that trend this month through executive orders and other actions. For example, the new Democratic attorney general in Michigan said she wouldn't defend the state's law protecting faith-based adoption agencies in court. In Kansas, Kelly signed an executive order banning anti-LGBT discrimination by state agencies and contractors, angering those concerned for conservative, religious employers.

John Hanna, Associated Press
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly discusses a new executive order that reinstates a past ban on anti-LGBT bias in state employment decisions and extends the policy to government contractors, on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. Standing to the Democratic governor's left is state Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, one of two openly LGBT lawmakers elected last year.

"In a perfect world, we wouldn't need executive orders like this," Kelly said at the time.

Schultz agrees, although his reasoning is different. In his perfect world, LGBT rights and religious freedom advocates work together, regardless of who occupies the White House or governor's mansion.

"If fundamental rights are always contingent upon who becomes governor or president, we exist in a constant state of red alert," Schultz said.

Although Laser applauded recent actions in Michigan and Kansas, she agreed that recent political trends have made it more difficult to bridge divides.

"Because religious freedom has become so politicized, it's hard to … have courageous conversations," she said.

And without courageous conversations, lawmakers will rarely enact legislation that lasts, Schultz said. Recent drama related to adoption-related laws in Michigan and Kansas stemmed, in part, from the circumstances of their initial passage.

"A lot of state legislatures don't fully resolve issues around LGBT rights and religious rights even if they passed related laws," he said.

Searching for solutions

In the current political environment, legislators and policy groups advocating for more balanced laws are fighting an uphill battle, Schultz said. But they do seem to be gaining ground in some states.

"I think more and more people are saying, 'Let's find a solution.' That makes me hopeful," Schultz said.

In Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams in November, political analysts predicted a brawl over Kemp's religious freedom-related promises. On the campaign trail, he'd expressed support for a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a policy then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed in March 2016 after a nationwide outcry.

However, earlier this month, the Republican speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, David Ralston, said he wanted to focus on unity instead of fulfilling the governor's campaign promises.

John Amis, Associated Press
Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston speaks during a state Republican party unity rally on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

"I'm pretty well on the record about having some serious concerns about RFRA. … That's one of those issues that divide us, and I think if we're going to continue to move Georgia forward, we have to do it united as opposed to being divided," he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Similarly, Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, an LGBT rights advocacy group, said his team is focused on supporting broad anti-discrimination protections instead of fighting against religious conservatives at any cost.

"What we've been doing the last few years is encouraging bipartisan support for a state civil rights law," he said. "Lots of people face discrimination for lots of reasons. It should be an issue that people on both sides of the aisle rally around."

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Schultz also highlighted Virginia Republican Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, as a bright spot amid polarization. She's sponsoring a bill this term that would prevent discrimination against the LGBT community in housing and has supported more conservative religious freedom legislation in the past.

"I don't want people to put me in a box here," she told The Washington Post.

These modest steps toward compromise and balance could make a big difference in the long run, Schultz said.

"There's going to be a lot more stability in a law if it's not passed with a pure partisan majority and if it has buy-in from across the political spectrum."