GOP bill would allow people to ignore LGBTQ rights by citing religion

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A bill from Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) purports to shield LGBTQ individuals from discrimination, but it would allow organizations to ignore those protections by citing religion.

A Utah Republican lawmaker plans to release a bill that would expand rights for LGBTQ individuals, but with a major caveat: People could ignore those protections and discriminate against those same LGBTQ individuals by citing a religious exemption.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) is the sponsor of the bill, which carves out exemptions for religious organizations to act based on beliefs that may exclude those of different sexual orientations or gender identities, though it includes language to shield LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, education, and other public services.

Stewart's bill counts support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but it has yet to win a backer among House Democrats who unanimously supported a more expansive LGBTQ rights measure in May.

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But the uphill climb for his plan doesn’t daunt Stewart, who sees the bill as a way to "bridge that gap" between preventing discrimination and allowing religion to inform individual decisions.

"I don’t know many people who wake up and say 'I want to discriminate’. Most people find that offensive," Stewart told The Associated Press. "There are people who, and I'm included among them, have religious convictions that put them in a bind about how to reconcile those two principles."

The Utah lawmaker's legislation comes as the Supreme Court prepares to rule on cases that touch squarely on the issue of employment discrimination against LGBTQ people, who currently do not receive specific protection in federal civil rights laws. While 21 states have laws that bar employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Democrats in Congress and running for president are pushing for a federal statute that would provide broader protections.

But that more sweeping bill's chances of passage are low unless Democrats take back full control of Congress as well as the White House, given Donald Trump's opposition and Republican critics who warn of a risk to religious freedom. That prospect has informed Stewart and outside groups' work on a proposal to enshrine rights for the LGBTQ community while also preserving the right for religious groups to act in accordance with their faiths.

Among other faith-based exemptions to anti-discrimination protections in the bill is an allowance for religious groups such as churches and schools to employ those who align with their internal guidelines, according to a summary provided in advance of its release. The bill also would prohibit religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage from having their tax-exempt status revoked.

"We have taken back the religious liberty principle from extremists who I think do want to do harm to LGBTQ people and minority rights," said Tyler Deaton, a senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a nonprofit supporting Stewart's bill that seeks to build conservative support for LGBTQ rights. Deaton added that some religious conservative groups who were consulted on the bill ultimately chose not to endorse it.