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Expanding gay rights: Utah’s smart compromise

When conservative legislators and lawmakers in support of gay rights met to hash out an amendment to Utah’s anti-discrimination law, they did something remarkable for today’s political climate — they compromised. The resulting bill, which passed the Republican-dominated Legislature and was signed by conservative governor Gary Herbert on March 12, bans discrimination for gay, bisexual, and transgender people in housing and employment while creating carve-outs for religious organizations. It should serve as a model for other red states where civil rights protections need an update.

This bill, already being described as “The Utah Compromise,” isn’t perfect. Gay rights activists aren’t thrilled that the newly won protections don’t apply to organizations affiliated with churches, such as nonprofits and colleges, or the Boy Scouts of America. The law also doesn’t comment on private businesses that might refuse service due to the religious beliefs of the owners. But it is worth noting that Mormon legislators — whose church has been vocal about its opposition to gay rights in the past — voted by a wide majority to support a bill that grants protections to gay people. And it is equally significant that Utah’s was the first GOP-dominated legislature to do so.


The breakthrough came when two leading apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a press conference at Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City, where they came out in support of the bill. The blessing of the church gave Mormon members of the legislature the cover they needed to support the bill. The vote also marks a rare moment of detente between Mormon leaders and gay rights activists, who usually view each other skeptically.

Religious leaders, lawmakers in conservative states, and leftist social activists can all learn a lesson from the Beehive State’s experience. The bill shows that free-speech rights of religious Americans and the civil rights of gay people do not have to be in opposition to each other. Just as important, the Utah legislature just reminded politicians across the country that, in fact, half a loaf is often better than no loaf at all.