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Congress Should Act to Balance LGBT Rights and Religious Freedom

Originally published in Morning Consult.

The Supreme Court is staying out of cases involving workers who say they were fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, giving Congress another opportunity to do its job and take up the much-needed work of balancing anti-discrimination policies and religious freedom.

Federal law currently has a gaping hole when it comes to some of the most important issues of personal identity in American life – religion, sexuality and gender. It’s high time for Congress to consider all viewpoints and pass a law that prevents discrimination while protecting religious liberty.

Imagine being thrown out of your home, fired from your job or denied a loan solely because of who you are or whom you love. That regularly happens in America because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is legal in 29 states. Uneven or nonexistent legal protections means that for many Americans, access to fundamental rights depends on the states and localities where they live.

Now imagine a choice between your religious beliefs or closing your doors to care for the vulnerable, or being denied a scholarship or student-teaching placement because you are a student at a religious college or university. The current federal policy vacuum means many Americans do not feel free to exercise their First Amendment right to live according to their faith and to serve their community guided by their sincere beliefs.

We are advocates for interests that many in our society see as in conflict: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender freedom and religious freedom. We don’t agree on everything, but we agree the answer needs to be legislative and shouldn’t come from the courts. Judicial decisions are narrowly tailored to the disputes they address.

The Supreme Court had two major opportunities this term to decide LGBT discrimination claims. One involved a Long Island skydiving instructor who said he was fired because he was gay, the other a transgender woman who lost her job at a Detroit-area funeral home when she transitioned at work. The court is not taking up either of them.

Meanwhile, there are already productive policy conversations underway to find common ground and to affirm that what unites us is much larger than what divides us.

Our firm and shared belief: All people have dignity and should enjoy the same basic rights to care for themselves and their families, exercise their faith and live their life without fear of discrimination or retribution.

We also agree that resolving current conflicts in a fair way that creates a lasting solution will require congressional leadership. We call on Congress to pass legislation that will ensure religious individuals and institutions the freedom to practice their beliefs while simultaneously protecting the ability of LGBT Americans to pursue employment, housing, public services and access to public accommodations.

The state of Utah has shown that such common ground exists. LGBT and religious leaders in that state came together to craft a 2015 law banning housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This law also ensured the continued freedom of Utahns to live out their religious beliefs. The same should be achievable under federal law.

Respecting deep differences has long been a source of our nation’s strength, and new federal legislation is an opportunity to provide guidelines so we can live together well in our growing diversity. Successful civil rights legislation has always commanded a broad, bipartisan consensus. Today, a new Congress has a chance to address and resolve these questions, rather than resigning the American public to further decades of litigation about the boundaries of equality and religious freedom.

Tyler Deaton is senior advisor to the American Unity Fund, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. Tim Schultz is president of the 1st Amendment Partnership, which promotes religious freedom.

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