Law professor on how Utah balanced religious freedom, LGBT rights

This week we had the opportunity to converse with Robin Fretwell Wilson, professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. Professor Wilson talked about what Utah got right as it worked to balance religious freedom with LGBT rights in the 2015 general legislative session.

Well, I think the most remarkable thing is you have the reddest state in America extending more protections to the LGBT community than even a very blue state like New York did. In other words, Utah went the distance and protected transgender people who are not expressly protected in New York and in exchange for that, it got ahead of the curve on same-sex marriage and doesn’t find itself flat-footed like the rest of the country right now where you have marriage clerks resigning and you have state offices closing down the marriage function, which I think is wrong, and you don’t have questions about whether a religious group’s tax exemption is going to be at risk.

All that gets buttoned down in the “Utah Compromise” and what I call marriage conscience protections, as well as some innovative pieces, like if you say something in a non-professional setting – think about saying something at a religious meeting on Sunday, like “marriage is between a man and a woman,” in your view, and then walk into your real estate business on Monday – nobody can yank your real estate license. That’s new; that hasn’t been there in other states.

There has to be a forum for every Utahn to be married, in every county, but the county can dispatch that duty in a way that means no religious objectors who have been working at those offices can be fired, except for the [County] Clerk who has been elected. The [County] Clerk can basically outsource this function to any authorized celebrant in the community whether that’s a religious figure or a judge; whoever volunteers. And everybody is treated the same way; it’s seamless. So, a same-sex couple comes in and they get the same treatment as a straight couple.

Continuing, Robin Wilson noted:

Utah actually has workplace speech protections both inside and outside the workplace that are really important in the sense that they protect political and religious speech about marriage, family and sexuality. But they’re two-way-street provisions so if a kid goes to an Equality Utah parade on the weekend he can’t come into the burger joint [where he works] on Monday and be fired for that – and neither can somebody who gave $1000 to Prop 8 be fired for doing that outside the workplace. It’s nobody’s business.

Inside the workplace, there’s a bigger role for the employer to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want any kind of speech about marriage, family or sexuality’ – but if they allow it, if they don’t want to bar that because it conflicts with their essential business purposes, then they have to allow it on the same basis whether it is pro-gay marriage [or] anti-gay marriage, but to the extent that the employer wants to say, ‘Nobody’s going to be talking about that at all,’ then they can tell [his or her employees] that [they’re] not going to be able to do that.

Professor Robin Wilson then concluded with these observations:

Everybody is going to have the urgency of deciding how you’re going to deal with marriage in a world in which legislatures did not get in front of this problem. I think those marriage protections – things like saying if you did religious counseling about marriage before [the U.S. Supreme Court validated] same-sex marriage you can do the same thing after and if that meant you dealt with traditional heterosexual married people only, then you can do that after. Those kinds of things are going to need to be put in state-wide law if there are municipal laws that say otherwise or if an organization contracts with the state or is tax-exempt or for a variety of other reasons. I think the way forward there is not to try to do legislative cram-downs. In other words, just because you have the votes doesn’t make it right. It’s going to go better if everybody is trying to think about a civil society where we live together in peace.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.

This post is a transcript of the Sutherland Soapbox, a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

Receive this broadcast each week directly to your iTunes by clicking here