USA Today: We can protect LGBTQ people and religious freedom. Pete Buttigieg and Utah show the way.

Jeff Graham, the director of Equality Utah, discusses the importance of finding common ground between religious freedom and LGBT rights, using Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and the Utah Compromise as models.

— This article previously published in USA Today by Jeff Graham

Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg is drawing intrigue for his identity as a gay Episcopalian, a combination that may not fit stereotypes of religion and politics but really isn’t unique at all.

Polling shows a majority of gay Americans identify as religious, close to half as Christian. Yet our political discourse more often tries to pit religious believers against the LGBTQ community in a false narrative. With the Supreme Court’s announcement that they will hear arguments on three cases on discrimination protections for gender identity and sexual orientation this fall, this perception will only grow more extreme. But the debate over gay rights is not a zero-sum game; we can have public policy that reflects respect both for LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.

Buttigieg recently explained while speaking about religion and sexuality, “If me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade.” It’s high time our laws reflect the reality that religion and homosexuality are not mutually exclusive and indeed often both exist as core aspects of personal identity within the same individuals.

Church leaders need to embrace the growing support in their own congregations for LGBTQ civil rights protections, while we in the gay and transgender rights movement need to welcome the support from people of faith who want to work with us to advance the cause. Advancing civil rights has always required a broad, bipartisan consensus, and that’s no different in the cause for LGBTQ civil rights.

In my home state of Georgia, we just finished a bitterly divisive legislative session. We are one of 30 states that has no protections to prevent discrimination against gay and transgender citizens. It’s perfectly legal and frequently occurs that Americans lose their jobs, get thrown out of their homes or are denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

These issues are very real and have national ramifications: Georgia will be in the national spotlight this fall as Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, will ask the Supreme Court to consider whether LGBTQ employees have employment protections under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

All religious groups want LGBTQ protections

While I hope that a year from now the court rules that sex discrimination within federal law does include LGBTQ people, we can take control of our own destiny by pushing to enact legislation that expands protections for LGBTQ Americans. I’m proud to say that in the final days of the Georgia legislative session in March, those of us in my state’s fight for LGBTQ rights gathered with leaders of many faiths to urge lawmakers to move nondiscrimination legislation when they reconvene next year. We in the Georgia Unites Against Discrimination campaign are unified in mutual concern that our state has no civil rights protections for anyone employed outside of state government and any type of public accommodations law.

That’s not unique to Georgia. A report last month from the Public Religion Research Institute found that majorities within all religious groups, including white evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, support LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies. PRRI’s American Values Atlas surveyed more than 40,000 Americans and found 69% in favor of enacting laws shielding LGBTQ people from discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing. Talk about loving your neighbor.

We need church leaders as part of the fight for our protections, and we need to respectfully listen to their concerns regarding their First Amendment right to live their faith and serve their community according to those religious beliefs.

We can have both kinds of freedom

We believe there’s more that unites us than divides us. We must find common ground with faith leaders to respect freedom of religion while respecting the rights of every American to live free of discrimination in civil and public life. This approach has already led to successful laws, such as the 2015 “Utah compromise” that protects LGBTQ people from housing and employment discrimination.

The First Amendment empowered the struggle for LGBTQ rights at Stonewall and beyond, at a time when many Americans were not ready for that message. Then and now, the LGBTQ community survived by relying on the strengths and protections of the First Amendment and its guarantees.

Those same guarantees are what protect the free exercise of religion by religious communities and individuals. Fifty years after Stonewall and nearly 230 years after the Bill of Rights, we still believe the First Amendment is for everyone.

“The chance to live a life of your choosing, in keeping with your values: that is freedom in its richest sense,” Buttigieg said in his announcement speech. This must be true for all of us, those of us who are LGBT, those of us who are people of faith, and the many, many of us who are both.

Jeff Graham is Executive Director of Georgia Equality. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffGrahamAtl

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