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Balancing LGBTQ Rights And Religious Liberty

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Core values in our society sometimes come into conflict. Most Americans, for example, believe people should not be punished for their religious beliefs, but neither for who they are. That means balancing the right to oppose same-sex marriage, a view held by some religious people, against the right of LGBTQ people to be free from discrimination. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten on the latest effort to find a compromise.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: A new bill was introduced in Congress with a title that should get it universal support - Fairness for All - fairness for people who identify as LGBTQ, but also for those people who believe God made everyone to be either male or female and intends marriage to be the union of one man and one woman.

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CHRIS STEWART: There's enough space where both of those can be accommodated, and that's what we've tried to do here today.

GJELTEN: Congressman Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah, is the bill's principal sponsor.

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STEWART: Neither side has to lose in order for the other side to win.

GJELTEN: Stewart was speaking outside the U.S. Capitol, where win-win proposals haven't gotten very far. A coalition of religious organizations and moderate civil rights groups has worked for this legislation for years. What they've come up with is really complicated. Under the bill, sexual orientation and gender identity are considered protected classes. People could not face discrimination in employment, for example, on the basis of those characteristics, just as they can't because of their race, sex, religion or age.

On the other hand, some religious groups are exempted. Churches and religious schools and charities get the right to employ only those people who adhere to their religious beliefs. Does that sound contradictory? Tyler Deaton of the American Unity Fund, who identifies as a gay conservative, tries to explain.

TYLER DEATON: We have to have laws on the books that can make it explicit when we're protected and when we're not. And this is the hard thing for me to say as a gay guy - like, there are going to be times that there are religious organizations that are going to have the freedom to refuse to serve me or employ me.

GJELTEN: Here's an example. A bakery with fewer than 14 employees could refuse, on the basis of religious beliefs, to design a custom wedding cake for a gay couple. But a bakery with 15 or more employees could not turn a gay couple away. The problem, of course, is that compromises don't please everyone. On the right, the Heritage Foundation has come out strongly against the legislation.

RYAN ANDERSON: They've been trying to get it right. I still think, at the end of the day, they haven't gotten it right.

GJELTEN: Ryan Anderson, who follows social issues for Heritage, says it's not clear to him, under the bill, what would or would not be allowed.

ANDERSON: The bill doesn't do enough to my mind to spell those out explicitly. It leaves a lot to the discretion of judges.

GJELTEN: The legislation gets a harsher review from the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. In a statement, the group's chairman, Alphonso David, says the bill is a double whammy of dangerous rollbacks and discriminatory carve-outs. Congressman Stewart says he does not yet have any Democratic cosponsors for the bill, but he thinks some will come.

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STEWART: We knew there would be objections to this from both the left and the right. We're fully aware of that. But again, we think this is a great bridge that compromises and brings some very compelling interests together, and we're honored to be doing it.

GJELTEN: Among the groups that do support the Fairness for All bill are the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the American Unity Fund, which supports the LGBTQ cause from a conservative perspective.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "KERALA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.