The Legislator and Religious Freedom

Religious freedom has long been a passion for the people of this nation. When the government usurps individual religious convictions for the sake of public opinion, we should be a concerned. This legislative session both the Utah House and Senate are considering bills that seek to address personal and religious freedoms from different angles.

First, Senate Bill 296, the Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments, was written to modify “the Utah Antidiscrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act to address discrimination and religious freedoms.” In essence, this bill protects those professing a non-traditional sexual orientation from discrimination. It “modifies definition provisions related to employment and housing discrimination, including defining "employer," "gender identity," and "sexual orientation.” However, the bill offers protection to more than this single class of residents; it protects the rights and religious freedoms of all.

In the small print of SB 296 we find that it does three things for religious freedom. First, it gives “freedom of expressive association and the free exercise of religion.” Second, it “addresses employee free speech in the workplace.” Finally, it “prohibits an employer from taking certain actions in response to certain employee speech outside the workplace”

We may rightly wonder what this means. SB 296 goes onto explain, “An employee may express the employee's religious or moral beliefs and commitments in the workplace in a reasonable, non-disruptive, and non-harassing way on equal terms with similar types of expression of beliefs or commitments allowed by the employer in the workplace, unless the expression is in direct conflict with the essential business-related interests of the employer.” SB 296 offers protection of religious freedom and free speech in the workplace. It reiterates an employee’s right to express their spiritual beliefs and moral convictions as long as it does not disrupt the mission of their employer.

SB 296 further protects the rights of employees by guaranteeing their rights of expression outside the workplace. “An employer may not discharge, demote, terminate, or refuse to hire any person, or retaliate against, harass, or discriminate in matters of compensation or in terms, privileges, and conditions of employment against any person otherwise qualified, for lawful expression or expressive activity outside of the workplace regarding the person's religious, political, or personal convictions, including convictions about marriage, family, or sexuality, unless the expression or expressive activity is in direct conflict with the essential business-related interests of the employer.” In other words, my participation (or lack of participation) in matters of personal conviction outside of the workplace cannot be a matter termination or discrimination. It is important to have these common sense rights clearly stated.

House Bill 66, Marriage Modifications, tackles a separate but similar issue. While states are required to provide marriage licenses to same sex couples, the question of the religious freedoms of churches arises. Should state law allowing same sex marriages usurp the religious freedoms and convictions of those that do not support same sex marriages? In November, I wrote to Governor Herbert stating my concerns, “While the County Clerk’s office may need to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, I am hopeful that your office can continue to work for religious freedom in our state assuring churches their right to exercise their convictions without penalty.”

HB 66 address this question by affirming “a person's religious freedom to act within the confines of the person's religious beliefs. This bill: recognizes the fundamental right of religious liberty; and affirms that a person authorized to solemnize a marriage is not required to solemnize a marriage that violates the person's religious belief system.”

This constitutional amendment would prevent churches and members of a faith from having to perform or recognize any rite contrary to their beliefs. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, says it may be best to continue last year's holding pattern for another year. "It may be too premature [to debate such bills] - that we ought to wait to see what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in June."

In other words, Senator Hillyard is advocating to wait to take legislative action until there is a legal need to act. However, just as SB 296 seeks to assure rights and freedoms of all, it would seem helpful for the rights and freedoms of churches to be considered at this time. Should the Supreme Court decide to overturn the lower court’s rulings, there has been no harm in the legislature’s support of religious freedom to churches in the state of Utah.

What do you think? Why not tell your legislators.

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