Latter-day Saint leaders oppose Equality Act over religious liberty concerns; Utah politicians respond

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SALT LAKE CITY — Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement Monday that opposes the Equality Act over concerns of religious liberty.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply concerned that the ongoing conflicts between religious liberty and LGBT rights is poisoning our civil discourse, eroding the free exercise of religion and preventing diverse Americans of good will from living together in respect and peace," the statement reads.

The Equality Act is a bill currently in Congress that would amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education, federal funding, credit and the jury system. The bill would essentially require all states to abide by certain discrimination laws on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity.

The church is "on record favoring reasonable measures that secure rights," most notably with their involvement in 2015 when state leaders signed what has come to be known as the "Utah Compromise." The bill extended state antidiscrimation protection in housing and employment to LGBT people but also provided exemptions for religious groups. Many LGBT activists and religious leaders in Utah supported the bill as a fair compromise.

Equality act does not meet 'fairness for all' standard, church leaders say

Church leaders say the Equality Act does not do enough to protect the rights of "individuals and faith communities to freely gather, speak out publicly, serve faithfully and live openly according to their religious beliefs without discrimination or retaliation, even when those beliefs may be unpopular," according to Monday's statement.

These unprotected rights include those of religious organizations and schools to establish "faith-based employment and admissions standards and to preserve the religious nature of their activities and properties," the statement reads.

The statement goes on to say "this does not represent a change or shift in church doctrine regarding marriage or chastity. It does represent a desire to bring people together, to protect the rights of all, and to encourage mutually respectful dialogue and outcomes in this highly polarized national debate."

The church knows conflicts between rights are "nothing new." Latter-day Saint leaders take a "fairness for all" approach that attempts to protect the most important rights for everyone, according to the statement.

"The Equality Act now before Congress is not balanced and does not meet the standard of fairness for all. While providing extremely broad protections for LGBT rights, the Equality Act provides no protections for religious freedom. It would instead repeal long-standing religious rights ... threaten religious employment standards, devastate religious education, defund numerous religious charities and impose secular standards on religious activities and properties," the statement reads.

The church called upon members of Congress to pass legislation that would protect both religious freedom as well as basic civil rights for LGBT people.

Utah political leaders react

Members of Utah's congressional delegation also had thoughts about the Equality Act on Monday.

Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah's only Democrat in Washington, said the federal government should follow Utah's example of securing housing and employment for LGBT families, while protecting religious freedom at the same time.

"I believe we can protect the free exercise of religion and protect the basic rights of LGBTQ Americans to be treated fairly under the law and have an equal opportunity to succeed and live full lives," he said in an emailed statement. "The Equality Act is another step in the direction we need to take, but we still have much to do."

McAdams is one of many cosponsors of the bill.

Republican Rep. Chris Stewart had fewer, but stronger, words about the bill than his congressional colleague.

"If this legislation was really about equality, it would protect religious freedom," he said.

A spokesman for Sen. Mitt Romney said the Republican also would not support the Equality Act.

"Senator Romney believes that strong religious liberty protections are essential to any legislation on this issue, and since those provisions are absent from this particular bill, he is not able to support it," Romney's communications director, Liz Johnson, said in an email.

Reps. Rob Bishop and John Curtis did not release statements about the bill on Monday. Sen. Mike Lee also did not release a statement.

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