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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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Buttigieg on Martha-Ann Alito: Flags Symbolizing Love vs. Insurrection Are Different

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg say he hopes Americans can see the difference between an LGBTQ Pride flag representing love, like the one Martha-Ann Alito lamented she has to look at daily, and flags that symbolize the January 6, 2021 insurrection, two of which she flew at the homes she and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito live in.

“I’m often reminded that the most important thing in my life, which is my marriage, and my family and the two beautiful children that my husband Chasten and I are raising that that marriage only exists by the grace of the single vote on the United States Supreme Court,” said Secretary Buttigieg, responding to a question during a CNN interview Wednesday morning about secretly-recorded remarks Mrs. Alito made. “That expanded our rights and freedoms back in 2015 and made it possible for somebody like me to get married.”

“And, you know, Supreme Court justices have an unbelievable amount of power and, and by the nature in the structure, the Supreme Court, there’s no supervision over that power. They are entrusted with it literally for as long as they live. And part of that trust is we expect them to enter into those enormously consequential decisions that that shape our everyday lives with a sense of fairness,” Buttigieg continued, appearing to acknowledge the tremendous drop in perceived credibility the Supreme Court has suffered in recent years. Last summer Pew Research reported the court’s favorability rating had dropped to a “historic low.”

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“I also hope that most Americans can understand the difference between a flag that symbolizes you know, love and acceptance and signals to people who have sometimes feared for their safety that they’re going to be okay. And insurrectionists symbology, I’ll just leave it at that.”

CNN’s Berman played audio of Martha-Ann Alito before asking the Secretary to offer his remarks.

“I want a Sacred Heart of Jesus flag, because I have to look across the lagoon at the pride flag for the next month,” Mrs. Alito can be heard saying in the secretly-recorded audio. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, please don’t put up a flag.’ I said, ‘I won’t do it. Because I’m deferring to you but when you are free of this nonsense, I’m putting it up and I’m gonna send them a message every day.’ ”

Although CNN did not play the full clip of Mrs. Alito’s remarks, she continued, saying, “I’ll be changing the flags. They’ll be all kinds. I made a flag in my head. This is how I satisfy myself. I made a flag. It’s white and has yellow and orange flames around it. And in the middle is the word ‘vergogna.’ ‘Vergogna’ in Italian means shame — vergogna. V-E-R-G-O-G-N-A. Vergogna.”

She also said, “I’m German. I’m from Germany. My heritage is German. You come after me, I’m gonna give it back to you. And there will be a way — it doesn’t have to be now — but there will be a way they will know. Don’t worry about it. God — you read the Bible. Psalm 27 is my psalm. Mine. Psalm 27, the Lord is my God and my rock. Of whom shall I be afraid? Nobody.”

Watch Buttigieg’s remarks below or at this link.

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Speaker Johnson on Why He Thinks Hunter Biden’s Conviction Is Valid but Donald Trump’s Is Not

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Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who could gain tremendous power if Donald Trump is elected president in November, explained to reporters his belief that Tuesday’s jury conviction of Hunter Biden on three federal felony gun charges was absolutely legitimate while Donald Trump’s conviction on 34 state felony charges was not.

“Every case is different,” Johnson told CNN’s Manu Raju (video below) when asked if “the president’s son being convicted on three counts” undercuts the Republican Speaker’s claims of a “two tier system of justice.”

Johnson added, “clearly the evidence was overwhelming” in the Hunter Biden prosecution, one which some legal experts said should not have been brought and at least one member of the jury who spoke to CNN said was a waste of the taxpayers’ dime.

“I don’t think that’s the case in the Trump trials, and all the charges that have been brought” against Trump “have been obviously brought for political purposes. Hunter Biden is a separate instance.”

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U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) issued a strong response to the Johnson’s claims.

“We should be very very worried that Republicans are so brazen in their belief that convictions of Democrats are fine but convictions of Republicans are illegitimate. This is a political party TELLING US OUT LOUD that they plan to use the justice system to persecute opponents.”

Speaker Johnson and Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and members from both their GOP conferences will be meeting with Donald Trump on Thursday, reportedly to create a game plan to pass major right-wing legislation if the convicted ex-president wins back the White House on November, NBC News reports.

Watch below or at this link.

 

 

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Trump Insists No Mandatory Military Draft Advisers Have Been Planning

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Presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump slapped down a report revealing his top advisors, including former high-ranking administration officials working on Project 2025, want to reinstate the mandatory military draft.

“Influential figures in Donald Trump’s orbit, including his former acting defense secretary, have proposed making military service mandatory,” The Washington Post reported Tuesday in a morning brief. “Christopher Miller, the former acting secretary of the Defense Department, shared his pitch for a national service mandate in Project 2025, the outline for a second Trump term prepared by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.”

In an expanded report, The Washington Post revealed if Trump is elected and if Miller becomes his Secretary of Defense, high school students across the country could be required to take a military assessment, “the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a standardized test developed by the Defense Department decades ago to help the military funnel recruits into occupations that match their skills and intellect.”

In an interview with the Post, Miller “detailed his vision for the ASVAB and a range of other changes as part of Project 2025, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s aspirational government-wide game plan should the presumptive Republican nominee return to the White House. Though Trump has not publicly endorsed its policy proposals, Miller is among a cluster of influential former administration officials and GOP lawmakers who have mused aloud about a national service mandate and other measures to remedy what they see as a ‘crisis’ facing the all-volunteer military.”

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“Miller said a national service requirement should be ‘strongly considered.’ He described the concept as a common ‘rite of passage,’ one that would create a sense of ‘shared sacrifice’ among America’s youth.”

Despite the facts, Trump blasted The Washington Post and its report.

“The Fake News Washington Post came up with the ridiculous idea that Donald J. Trump will call for Mandatory Military Service,” the ex-president and now convicted felon wrote on his Truth Social platform. “This is only a continuation of their EIGHT YEAR failed attempt to damage me with the Voters. The Story is completely untrue. In fact, I never even thought of that idea. Only a degenerate former Newspaper, which has lost 50% of its Readers, would fabricate such a tale. Just another Fake Story, one of many, made up by the DEAD Washington Compost!”

It’s unclear if by “DEAD” Trump was referring to The Post’s official slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” instituted the same year he became president.

The concept of “national service” is far from new, but the United States has not ever had mandatory military service, where everyone of a certain age was required to serve. Up until 1973 America still had the draft, before transitioning to an all-volunteer military.

President Barack Obama expanded opportunities for Americans to serve in non-military agencies, including AmeriCorps, FEMA Corps, and School Turnaround AmeriCorps.

Trump has kept his distance publicly away from Agenda 2025, but some experts believe should he be elected in November, that massive project, including its 920 manual, could easily become the national policy of the Trump administration.

The Biden administration has been campaigning against Project 2025.

Watch the video below or at this link.

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