Culture Friday: No compromise on religious liberty

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Friday, December 13th, 2019. Glad to have you along for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

As you heard on this program earlier this week, Utah Republican Chris Stewart introduced the Fairness for All Act. The bill introduced last week would amend the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and add to it sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, just the same as race, sex, religion, age, and disability. 

Congressman Stewart is himself Mormon, and Mormon leaders are publicly backing the legislation.  

Here’s Stewart explaining why he believes Republicans must offer a legislative compromise that balances religious freedom with LGBT protections:

STEWART: We don’t think anyone should be discriminated against based on their race, their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, religion, whatever it might be. We also have this other principle that says if you are a member of a faith that has sincerely held religious beliefs you shouldn’t have to abandon that faith.

Eight other Republicans co-sponsored the bill. Notably, no Democrats signed on. That’s likely because it’s seen as a competing measure to the Equality Act the House passed back in May, which has stalled in the Senate. 

That legislation also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity under federal civil rights law. But it doesn’t carve out any religious exemptions.

EICHER: John Stonestreet joins us now for Culture Friday. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

John, good morning.


EICHER: So, John, we know, even the bill sponsors know this bill isn’t going anywhere this year. They say, this is just to get the conversation going. So let’s get it going.

Here’s the pitch for it: this kind of bill, they say, is absolutely necessary to protect religious freedoms. Their argument is, yes, it expands LGBT protections, but it also enshrines religious liberty for churches, religious organizations, and some business owners. 

For example, it would allow small wedding vendors like Baronelle Stutzman, the florist, and Jack Phillips, the baker, to do business in accordance with their biblical convictions. It would also allow religious organizations to hire employees who share their beliefs and let faith-based hospitals opt out of performing abortions and controversial so-called sex-reassignment surgeries.

I know you’re against it, but, devil’s advocate here, religious liberty seems to be losing supporters by the day. Why is it not time to sue for peace?

STONESTREET: Well, I think there’s a number of things. 

Religious liberty is, I think, struggling in the cultural imagination and that’s a long-term problem that we need to solve. But the judiciary is a completely different judiciary than it was when Fairness For All was initially imagined. 

In fact, you know, Fairness For All was initially imagined when everyone was almost certain that Hillary Clinton was going to be the president of the United States, that she was going to be the one that fills the vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court, that she was going to be appointing lower court judges as well, and that she was going to have a similar policy agenda along with—that we saw in the last term of President Obama, in which it seemed like his singular policy priority in both domestic and foreign affairs was to advance the LGBT agenda in one way or another. And none of that’s really come to pass. Now, that’s not a long-term solution, as we’ve said, but it is a reprieve of sorts. And we do have a completely different judiciary because of it. 

I think this is also not the right solution not just because we’re dealing with a different reality than what we had assumed when all of this started, but it’s also because of what you said. Not a single Democrat wants to support this bill. You can only compromise if those on the other side also want a compromise. It takes two to tango. It also takes two to have peace. And so this is a non-starter not just because some of us on the conservative side of the aisle think it’s problematic, but because no one on the left wants to play. And I just don’t see that as a reality that’s taking place.

BASHAM: OK, but John, as you said both the progressive left and the Christian right find certain provisions of this bill unacceptable. So no one really thinks it’s going to pass.

But the concessions Stewart and the other Republicans are willing to make still seem pretty telling. As does the support the bill is getting from a lot of religious groups like LDS leadership and then on the Christian side Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. The National Association of Evangelicals voiced support at one point. I’ll add to that I’ve seen several op-eds from political conservatives arguing that given where our culture is now, a bill like this is the only way forward. 

So I guess I have to ask, if they’re wrong, what do you see as the way forward on protecting religious rights in the face of rapidly changing public opinion?

STONESTREET: Well, I think at least as telling as the groups—or maybe more—as those who have lined up in support of the Fairness For All are those who haven’t, and even those who were at one point and grew silent. Even the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have kind of been the primary advocate on the evangelical side of things. Many Christian college presidents do not support it, that are even part of the CCCU. So there’s just not universal support for this. In fact, I would say most evangelical groups are not behind this because of who it leaves out—I think most notably groups like C12, which is a group of Christian business owners. Because as Mike Sharrow, the CEO, has said very clearly, the sort of line that Fairness For All draws between who is protected and who is not basically leaves him and all of his CEOs that he works with kind of already on the wrong side of history there in the category of bigot. 

Now, the argument for Fairness For All—one of them—that’s been made over and over is if we’re not going to do this, we’ve got to do something. What do you guys have? And the answer is, the thought is, well, you don’t have anything. I think we do. First of all, again, we have a new judiciary and we have kind of a track record now of many, many ways in which the Supreme Court—many, many incidences of when the Supreme Court has stood on the side of religious liberty and has not tolerated sort of mistreatment, for example, that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission directed at Jack Phillips. And they haven’t weighed in fully, yet, on where some of these lines are. And so for us to give up the 50-yard line and some would say with Fairness For All, more than the 50-yard line, before the game starts is, I think, a really unfortunate and unwise thing to do. 

In other words, we have an established tradition in America of protecting religious freedom. That religious freedom is beyond just personal rights to worship in our own houses and houses of worship and in our own hearts. But it actually does allow us to order our public lives at some level. And the court has consistently supported that, not forced people who communicate to give messages against their deeply held beliefs. And has certainly protected houses of worship without us needing to draw a specific line that’s going to immediately put everybody else into the category of bigot. So I think there’s already been a way forward and that way forward right now is actually working and we’re doing it right now with a much more friendly court than we ever have before.

And I think we need to continue along those lines, and then continue to make that public case that we want the sort of culture where people can coexist with different deeply held beliefs, without coercing some people to violate theirs. 

BASHAM: I’d like to turn the corner a little bit now. I know we call this Culture Friday, but I kind of joked to Nick that this is sort of our legislative edition of Culture Friday. I think, though, that this is some legislation that maybe is a little easier to get on board with. Republican Mark Walker of North Carolina introduced for the second time a bill called The Universal Charitable Giving Act.

The first time Walker introduced the bill was in 2017 in part as a response to research showing that the percentage of Americans who donate to charity has dropped significantly since 2002. It didn’t pass.

This year, he brought the legislation forward again in time to coincide with Giving Tuesday. It’s aim is to encourage more tax filers to give to charity by allowing a charitable tax deduction even if they don’t itemize. 

So, John, as, I assume, a taxpayer yourself, what do you think of this idea?

STONESTREET: Well, I think the new tax plan—even though it simplified an awful lot under Trump—it did take away sort of the tax incentive for people who don’t exceed the general deduction, which actually includes an awful lot of givers because it’s a very generous general deduction. I think organizations are now reporting, as I’ve seen in the various reports, it didn’t affect so much things in year one but it does seem to be affecting things in year two. And I think it’s worth considering. I don’t think—at least I know the folks who are so generous and kind to support the work of the Colson Center, they don’t seem motivated by tax deductions alone. In fact, someone just told me that. I asked about a gift and I said, you know, about the timing of it before tax deduction. And he said, ah, I don’t care about taxes. I think most people want to be wise, because we don’t want our money just to go to the government when it could go other places and we want to maximize those things. And I’m appreciative, for example, of the National Christian Foundation and many others who have made things like donor-advised funds for lower income donors and for lower givers more accessible and easier and that becomes now another option around the taxes. But, look, anything that encourages people to take responsibility for their own communities, for their own works of charity, and so on, I think is a good thing. And we all know that the net contribution that organizations, faith-based organizations bring to the GDP is unbelievable. And that the government literally could not have any sort of social safety net that really worked without so many groups that need to be supported. So, sure, yeah. I’m not an expert on tax policy, but you don’t have to twist my arm on this one.

EICHER: Yeah, I mean, we’ve basically heard the same at WORLD that the tax deduction is not the motivation. The mission is the motivation. But, yeah, as you say, anything that drives people to be more charitable and in support of a community-based social safety net has got to be a net positive. 

Well, John Stonestreet is the president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. 

John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Megan.

(Photo/Associated Press, Samuel Corum) U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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