President Joe Biden’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act offers Americans an opportunity to begin turning the page on the failed politics of the culture wars. Building a legislative consensus by pairing marriage equality with religious freedom protections shows that we, as a nation and as a people, can overcome seemingly intractable divides and resolve politically thorny policy issues if we simply exercise the political will to do so.
By proving that consensus around LGBTQ equality and religious freedom is possible, the Respect for Marriage Act is a vindication of the Utah compromise.
In 2015, Utah lawmakers and advocates for religious freedom and the LGBTQ community (including both authors of this article) came together to transcend political and policy divides and find a consensus agreement on LGBTQ nondiscrimination in employment and housing and religious freedom. Both LGBTQ and religious Utahns gained new legal protections for their lives and identities – the security of knowing they would remain free to live according to their deepest beliefs and most cherished values. While all sides made gains that served their interests, everyone ultimately had to make peace with the idea of a legislative compromise.
Predictably, extremists on both sides objected to Utah’s new law because it wasn’t pure according to their own lights. It offered genuine protections for the jobs and homes of LGBTQ Utahns on the one hand, and it protected the expression and conscience of religious Utahns in the workplace, marketplace and in public service on the other hand. Critics of Utah’s law sought to marginalize it and contain its spread. One of their major objections was their belief that this approach could only work in a place like Utah.
The success of the amended Respect for Marriage Act has proven that argument to be patently false. If the most divided and dysfunctional government in the nation – the U.S. Congress and the president – can find consensus on LGBTQ equality and religious freedom, can any elected body honestly say they can’t?
Certainly, enacting consensus policies through legislation is not easy. But the successful passage of the Respect for Marriage Act offers several lessons about what it takes to accomplish this feat.
First, we must elevate the stories and lives of the large proportion of the LGBTQ community who desire both equality and religious freedom. This includes much of the 56% of LGBTQ Americans who are religious. It also includes those whose loved ones are devout people of faith and whose rights they care about as much as their own.
Second, we must listen to and cultivate religious freedom advocates who recognize non-purist advances of religious freedom as genuine advances, not setbacks. Some proponents of religious freedom have fallen into the trap of viewing measures which strengthen religious freedom through legislative compromise as threats to religious freedom. Ironically, this often makes them one of the greatest obstacles to many potential advances for religious freedom.
Third, we need elected policymakers who are more committed to generating practical legal protections for LGBTQ Americans and religious Americans than they are to an extreme left or right political and policy agenda. The no-compromise approach leaves members of churches as well as LGBTQ Americans at risk and unprotected. That is unacceptable.
Finding legislative consensus requires us to set aside our prejudices – both those against LGBTQ Americans and those against religious Americans. But the Respect for Marriage Act shows it can be done. It remains to us to turn the page and find the next policy area where consensus and compromise will produce policy solutions for all Americans.
Derek Monson is Vice President of Policy for Sutherland Institute, a public policy think tank based in Salt Lake City. The Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen is the executive director of Parity, a New York-based national nonprofit that works at the intersection of faith and LGBTQ+ concerns, and the director of Blessed by Difference, a project that seeks to promote curious and collaborative bridging across the LGBTQ+ and faith divide.