BOISE — Sen. Brent Hill, president pro tempore of the Idaho Senate, needs help to forge a compromise between the LGBT community and people of faith. But when he published an op-ed this week asking for it, no one showed up.
"Not one person came (to my office) to see what compromises might be," he said Friday at a summit on LGBT and religious rights at Concordia University School of Law.
Friday's event was an effort to bring more people to the bargaining table. Sponsored by a mix of conservative and liberal organizations, it was attended by more than 100 civil rights activists, policymakers and scholars from both sides of the aisle and both the LGBT and religious communities.
Participants heard three panels on the future of LGBT rights and religious freedom in Idaho, which, like many states, is struggling to balance protections for gays and lesbians with protections for religious objectors to same-sex marriage. Speakers generally supported new laws preventing sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination, but clashed over whether that change should come with new protections for people of faith.
"What about including (the LGBT community) in civil rights law suddenly requires religious exemptions?" asked Nicole LeFavour, who served in the Idaho Senate from 2008 to 2012 and the Idaho House of Representatives for four years before that. She was the first openly gay member of the state's legislature.
Her comments illustrate why passing new nondiscrimination protections is difficult even when LGBT and religious rights activist agree to meet. However, Hill and other summit participants haven't given up hope.
"Often persons of faith and LGBT persons have more in common than not," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois College of Law. "Both want freedom "to be in the public square without leaving behind the things that are core and central to them."
Seeking new protections
The response to Hill's op-ed isn't surprising in a political environment defined by polarization, according to his fellow panelists. Across the country, LGBT and religious rights activists treat each other with suspicion instead of finding ways to work together.
"Often, the people pitted against each other have never been in the same room," Wilson said.
Hill, who is Republican and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been trying to change that in Idaho. Over the last four years, he's been convening bipartisan conversations on so-called "fairness for all" legislation, increasing awareness of the pain caused by anti-religious and anti-LGBT discrimination.
In his op-ed, Hill acknowledged that this work is far from over.
"It takes time … for people to better understand the concepts of this balanced approach and focus on the benefits it provides them," he wrote. "Time we do not have in the current legislative session."
With legislation on hold, Hill wants to focus on bringing more community stakeholders to the negotiating table to prepare for next year. But LGBT rights activists, in particular, are frustrated with his policy plans.
"We're open to continuing to have conversations," said Kathy Griesmyer, policy director of the ACLU of Idaho, during Friday's event. "But we feel (the religious protections) we have in current laws are reasonable and balanced."
Rather than passing new protections for both the LGBT and religious communities, Griesmyer is advocating for a more straightforward solution. She supports adding "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the state's list of protected characteristics, which is proposed in a bill that Hill won't bring forward for a vote.
Already, 13 Idaho municipalities have taken this step, banning LGBT discrimination just as they outlaw racial or religious discrimination.
"We want to see that across the state," Griesmyer said.
However, such a change would come with unintended consequences for people of faith, said Wilson, who worked with Utah on its "fairness for all" legislation in 2015. Adding sexual orientation and gender identity to existing human rights laws means that only a small group of religious objectors to same-sex marriage are exempt from housing, hiring or serving the LGBT community.
"We need a new script," she said.
In Utah, Wilson worked with lawmakers, faith leaders and LGBT rights activists to write one, expanding LGBT nondiscrimination protections in housing and hiring while also adding conscience protections for people of faith.
"What we did was add additional protections for everybody. That’s what brought everyone to the table," said Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, who co-sponsored one of the two pieces of legislation that made up the Utah compromise, in an interview last summer.
What it takes
Idaho is not going to be able to simply copy and paste Utah's legislation, noted Hill and other panelists. But it can embrace the spirit of Utah's work, choosing to prioritize teamwork over a winner-take-all approach.
"If we think we'll win only if we annihilate the other side, nobody is going to come out a winner," Hill said.
This work also won't succeed if people aren't willing to have their feelings hurt sometimes, said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Part of living in a diverse, pluralistic society means accepting some actions and opinions you don't agree with.
"There has to be some room to live and let live, even if we're offended and hurt by some things going on," he said.
Policymakers and civil rights activists alike need an attitude adjustment, Wilson said. Progress is only possible if both groups are willing to imagine a better future.
"If we set this up to be an impossible hill to climb, then it will be an impossible hill to climb," she said.
Similarly, Hill asked summit participants to be honest with themselves about how they've treated people with whom they disagree.
"If you can have almost everything you want, are you willing to walk away from that because you don’t want to give other side something they want? That’s a question we have to ask ourselves," he said.
In the midst of polarization, we'll only succeed if we recognize the humanity of everyone, Hill noted.63 comments on this story
"We're talking about our neighbors and friends, our brothers and sisters," he said. "Perhaps we should make a bigger effort to understand" each other.
Events like Friday's summit are a step in the right direction, Hill added. He's hopeful that Idaho will take up "fairness for all" legislation next year.
"We have to have more meetings like this and have more conversations in our homes and churches, in our public squares and legislatures. Let's talk about our real needs," he said.