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Utah LGBT Rights Bill A Trojan Horse For Religious Right’s Agenda

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There were both cheers and tears as many in the Utah LGBTQ community celebrated the passage of a workplace and housing nondiscrimination law in the conservative Utah legislature. But behind closed doors, I suspect it’s actually the leaders of the Religious Right who are cheering the hardest.

As someone who began as an activist in the Utah LGBTQ community, and fought for years alongside countless others for full workplace and housing protections, I was overjoyed at the possibility that 2015 might finally be the year we stepped closer to equality. Too many LGBTQ Utahns, myself included, have faced that discrimination firsthand. But once the legislation was unveiled, my heart sank. While there is much to be happy with in the legislation, and the protections it offers to some of the most vulnerable citizens in the Beehive State, the law also contains a tiny Trojan Horse individual religious exemptions clause. 

The Utah bill is being called a “model” to be used in states around the nation, but we must be forewarned. The individual religious exemption in the law, as small and seemingly noninvasive as it is, could put the civil liberties of everyone at stake for decades to come.

Religious freedom is important, and as a principle has existed since before the writing of the U.S. Constitution. The 13 original colonies were a fractured bunch of near-theocracies, with various Christian sects dominating different colonies—to the detriment of anyone not a member of the particular sect in power locally. Thanks to the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the principle of religious freedom in the Constitution set in motion of the disestablishment of the state churches, and the advantages they held in the public sphere. Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which predated the Constitution and was the first such law to be enacted in the world, said one’s beliefs or non-beliefs cannot “enhance, diminish, or impact” one’s “civil capacity.” Individuals were shielded from the tyranny of churches who had previously sought to force them to adhere to their beliefs, and religions were shielded from governments elevating one religion over another. 

It has taken us a long time to make it work and, in truth, we are still working on it. 

But the Religious Right has launched a campaign to redefine the meaning of religious liberty, stripping away those protections and once again giving religions the power to circumscribe the rights of individual conscience. 

This coalition, led by right-wing groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly known as Alliance Defense Fund), the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and Liberty Counsel, is systematically working the courts and state legislatures to enact religious exemptions—essentially a right of religious institutions and individuals to decide which laws they will or will not follow.

In practical terms, this could play out as a business owner invoking faith to deny service to a LGBTQ couple, or refusing to hire Jewish employees. Or a man refusing to promote women to managerial positions because he doesn’t believe men should be subservient to women. We cannot allow such freedom of conscience to become a legal sanction for these and other forms of discrimination.

One of the Religious Right leaders heavily involved in this campaign is Dallin H. Oaks, one of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ (Mormon) senior leaders and member of their Quorum of 12 Apostles. The Mormon church frequently finds itself at odds with members of other faiths who don’t believe it to be a true Christian religion. However, unlike some of his brethren in the all-male leadership, Oaks is deeply involved in the work with the Religious Right. He sits on the board of the international culture warring organization World Congress of Families. He received the 2013 “Canterbury Medal” for his “defense of religious liberty” from the Becket Fund. In speeches before conservative groups, Oaks frequently extols the benefits of individuals being able to using their faith as an excuse to dodge pesky civil rights laws.

That’s why, when just a few weeks ago Oaks held a press conference to announce that he and the Mormon church were ready to endorse a statewide nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ people if only the leaders of the local LGBTQ community would sit down and negotiate a “compromise,” many were suspicious.

Oaks was up front about what he was looking for. He and other leaders of the Mormon church enumerated the religious exemptions they wanted included with a nondiscrimination law, including a right for government and health care workers to deny service to LGBTQ people.

SB296, the bill that resulted from those negotiations, was hailed by equality groups and the Mormon church as a “historic compromise” of nondiscrimination and religious freedom. The bill does indeed ban workplace and housing discrimination against LGBTQ people in Utah. But buried underneath those important protections, is a small clause guaranteeing the right of individuals to express faith-based anti-LGBTQ views at work.

It’s a small exemption. Seemingly inconsequential in comparison to the benefits the new law could bring. Viewed purely as a standalone piece of legislation, SB296 does a lot more good than bad and it’s unsurprising to see so many social justice-minded people supporting it.

But the equality movement cannot survive if we view legislation through a short-term and narrow lens. To do so is to ignore the context of the long-term consequences of the Religious Right’s national agenda—which only needs to get a foot in the door to get the ball rolling. 

Oaks’ goal with the nondiscrimination law was not to pass full individual religious exemptions all at once. To use the analogy of the unfortunate amphibian, the frog will jump out of the pot if put directly into boiling water. But turn the heat up slowly, and the frog cooked to death. For the LGBTQ community to endorse the Religious Right’s corrupt redefined version of religious freedom, even in this one seemingly minor way, opens the door for the expansion of religious exemptions in both breadth and number. 

And as if to confirm this suspicion as quickly as possible, within two hours of the “compromise” SB296 passing the Utah legislature, conservatives in the Utah House of Representatives had also passed two other bills that had not been part of the negotiations: one granting county clerks the right to refuse to perform any marriage they opposed on religious grounds, and the other paving the way for full individual religious exemptions in the public marketplace. 

It’s a victory for the Right not only in the success of imposing their agenda into law, but in winning the larger PR battle at a critical moment in time. 

As I discussed in Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBTQ Gains, the Mormon church has only ever given in to pressure by the LGBTQ community when its back is against the wall in a public relations battle. After months of heavy protesting over their involvement in California’s Prop 8, they endorsed a municipal nondiscrimination law in Salt Lake City in 2009. In 2010, after 2nd-in-command Mormon leader Boyd K. Packer claimed that there was no way God would allow people to be born gay, protests around the church’s headquarters garnered international attention and prompted Packer’s comments to be officially stricken from the church’s records.  

So why did the Mormon church unexpectedly come to the table? Could it be a delayed response to their highly-publicized excommunication of faithful feminist members for asking for a public discussion about why the patriarchal church does not allow female leadership? Unlikely, that was months ago and the discussion has largely died down.

A more plausible explanation is the forthcoming World Congress of Families (WCF) event scheduled for Salt Lake City in October. The international coalition of U.S. culture warriors held a conference last year in Moscow—their name was removed just before the conference started to prevent negative publicity over the situation in Ukraine—where attendees unanimously voted to urge their home countries—like the United States—to pass laws modeled on the Russian anti-LGBTQ law. (That law criminalizes any positive speech about LGBTQ people under the guise of protecting children from “propaganda.”) 

WCF attendees and other U.S. conservatives, such as Rick Warren, Sharon Slater, Brian Brown and others, are known around the world for their work in exporting the culture wars abroad, which has resulted in outcomes like the “kill the gays” bill in Uganda.

Dallin H. Oaks is a member of the WCF board of directors. 

Thanks to Oaks’ work in helping to pass the “compromise” legislation, the WCF and the Religious Right’s goal of codifying their redefined version of religious freedom into law has taken a giant step forward. Once Pandora’s Box is opened, there’s no shutting it.

 

Eric Ethington is a journalist, activist, and researcher. Originally from Utah, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. His writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Public Eye magazine. Follow him on Twitter @EricEthington. 

Image: Gov. Gary Herbert signing SB296 into law. Photo by Salt Lake City Council Member Erin Mendenhall via Twitter

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RACISM A FEATURE NOT A BUG FOR GOP

McCarthy Mocked for Claim GOP Is Not Party of ‘Nativist Dog Whistles’ After Greene’s New ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Caucus

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“The nativist call is coming from inside your own caucus, Kevin”

After four years of a Republican President who worked almost daily to spread or lend support to racism, white nationalism, or white supremacism – including having top advisors inside the White House who embraced those ideologies – House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy is having a hard time tamping down the Pandora’s Box of hate Donald Trump unleashed.

McCarthy has refused to take a strong stand against the most dangerous members of his caucus, trying to allow the extremist Congressmen and Congresswomen to actively lie, disrupt House business, and spread hate on a daily basis. Because they are raising millions.

In response to Republican white supremacist members of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona announcing they are forming the “America First Caucus,” McCarthy tried to stand up to those radicals, as Forbes notes, via tweet.

It did not go well.

The America First Caucus’s “platform” says “a certain intellectual boldness is needed amongst members of the AFC to follow in President Trump’s footsteps, and potentially step on some toes and sacrifice sacred cows for the good of the American nation.”

It’s focus? All the current GOP buzzwords, like “Election Fraud,” “Sovereignty,” “Big Tech,” “Immigration,” “America First Education,” and “The Chinese Communist Party,” among others.

One portion that is raising a lot of eyebrows talks not about America’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage, which the far right often uses to single out some immigrants, but another term that narrows that opening even further: “America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

Late Friday afternoon McCarthy tried to push back.

“America is built on the idea that we are all created equal and success is earned through honest, hard work. It isn’t built on identity, race, or religion,” he tweeted. “The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans—not nativist dog whistles.”

The Republican Party, even decades before Donald Trump, has been the party of nativist dog whistles, as many reminded him.

Here’s what some are saying.

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ANALYSIS

‘Nightmare Scenario’ for Democracy: ‘Desperate’ GOP May Sink to New Depths to Fight Election Reform – With SCOTUS’s Help

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While Republicans in state legislatures are proposing voter suppression bills all around the U.S., Democrats are pushing the For the People Act at the federal level — a comprehensive voting rights bill that has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives but now faces a steep uphill climb in the U.S. Senate. Democrats have a narrow majority and must contend with the filibuster for most legislation. Far-right pundits have been railing against the act, known as HR1, on conservative media outlets like Fox News, Fox Business and Newsmax, and observers warn Republicans will take extreme efforts to fight any such reforms.

Some of these tactics were highlighted analysis by Crooked Media’s Brian Beutler and on the Democracy Docket website.

Beutler contemplates various scenarios and how they could affect voting rights if they come to pass. Some scenarios to consider, Beutler writes, include 82-year-old Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court becoming available, Democrats losing their narrow Senate majority, and the court attacking voting reforms if Democrats somehow manage to get them passed in the Senate.

“Here’s a nightmare scenario I encourage everyone — but particularly, Breyer and Senate Democrats — to imagine having to endure,” Beutler writes. “Through illness or untimely death, Democrats’ 50-50 Senate ‘majority’ becomes a 49-50 Senate minority. They don’t retain the seat. Joe Biden loses reelection. We’re all left hoping Breyer can survive into his 90s so that the Supreme Court doesn’t swing from 6-3 to 7-2. Mitch McConnell gets Charlie Kirk fitted for a robe.”

He continues: “Now consider this less speculative nightmare scenario. Democrats let bygones be bygones, leave court reform out of their larger democracy-reform project, change the filibuster rules, pass both HR 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — and the existing Supreme Court takes a hatchet to it. We should know to expect this, because Republicans declared the For the People Act ‘unconstitutional’ sight unseen, as a kind of bat signal to their allies on the courts to make sure democracy reform can’t take effect.”

Beutler adds, “We can’t know in advance which provisions of these bills the Supreme Court would invalidate, but it’s trivially easy to step into the shoes of conservative justices and extend the same pseudo-constitutional arguments they’ve used to degrade American election law over the last decade to new reforms. Campaign-finance regulations? Well, those obviously violate the 1st Amendment. Non-partisan gerrymandering? The federal government can’t dictate that kind of thing to the states!”

But Democrats don’t just face dangers from the right-wing Supreme Court. Republicans controlling key state legislatures, oftened heavily gerrymandered to protect their majorities from swings in public opinion, are actively considering how to thwart efforts to make elections fairer.

Democracy Docket, in a “legislation alert” published this week, describes Texas House Bill 4507 — which has been proposed by Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives and would “essentially create a two-tiered voter registration system, in an effort to evade federal voting rights protections that could pass into law this year.”

Democracy Docket explains, “HB 4507 establishes two different registration processes: one for federal elections, which would be required to comply with national legislation such as the For the People Act — and one for state elections, which Texas Republicans claim could ignore these federal requirements. Any voter registering to vote in a federal election would not be automatically registered for local and state elections, unless they meet the much stricter and more exclusionary requirements of Texas’ election code. Instead, they would have to apply and register again separately for their local elections.”

On Twitter, attorney Marc E. Elias, founder of Democracy Docket, described HB 4507 as an example of “how desperate Republicans are to prevent all voters from participating in elections”:

After liberal Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent tweeted Beutler’s Crooked Media column, law professor and election law expert Rick Hasan noted:

Image via Shutterstock

 

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RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY

Scandalous Scion Jerry Falwell Jr. Sued for $10 Million by Liberty University

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Jerry Falwell, Jr. is being sued by the school his father founded. Liberty University has filed a $10 million complaint against its former president.

“The new suit, which alleges breach of contract and fiduciary duty, claims that Mr. Falwell withheld scandalous and potentially damaging information from Liberty’s board of trustees, while negotiating a generous new contract for himself in 2019 under false pretenses. Mr. Falwell also failed to disclose and address ‘his personal impairment by alcohol,’ the suit alleges, according to The New York Times.

But according to Talking Points Memo, which published the entire complaint, the lawsuit is far more scandalous.

“The evangelical institution claims in the suit, filed in Lynchburg Circuit Court in Virginia, that Falwell concealed his relationship with Giancarlo Granda from the university.”

“Had Liberty’s Executive Committee known in 2018 and 2019 that Granda was attempting to extort Falwell Jr. and thus planning to damage Liberty, and had it known the full circumstances of Granda’s extortion of Falwell Jr., then the Executive Committee would have refrained from entering into the 2019 Employment Agreement,” the suit states.

“The actions of Falwell Jr. and Granda have injured Liberty’s enrollment, impacted its donor base, disrupted its faculty, enabled the 2019 Employment Agreement that proved detrimental to Liberty’s interests, and damaged Liberty’s reputation,” the suit reads.

The suit also adds that “Granda had plenty of information that could have been deeply  damaging to Falwell Jr. in the eyes of the evangelical community.”

Falwell, Jr.’s social media posts are infamous, and some are included in the lawsuit.

In August of 2020 before leaving Liberty, Falwell said his wife had had a “fatal attraction” extramarital relationship with the man identified as Giancarlo Granda.

“Becki had an inappropriate personal relationship with this person, something in which I was not involved – it was nonetheless very upsetting to learn about,” Falwell claimed.

But Granda responded by accusing Falwell of being involved in that relationship.

“Jerry enjoyed watching,” Granda alleged.

This is a breaking news and developing story.

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