A few cake cutters held a reunion of sorts this week in Utah.
If you believe, as I do, that miracles sometimes happen in unusual places, you may have watched with a slack jaw six years ago as conservative Utah politicians, religious leaders, including those of both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the local Catholic Church, and leaders of the LGBTQ community came together to create state laws that protect both religious liberties and LGBTQ rights.
That it seems so still today is a bit disappointing. Miracles, by definition, are rare and marvelous events. By now, “the great Utah compromise” was supposed to have inspired copycat signing ceremonies nationwide, including in Washington. A local victory in a key culture war battle was to have been a guiding light to a brighter future.
That hasn’t happened.
Instead, outside Utah’s borders all sides seem just as entrenched as before — perhaps more so. And, as it showed last week in a ruling that pitted the city of Philadelphia against Catholic Social Services and the placement of foster children with same-sex couples, the Supreme Court has no desire to dictate a compromise. Its culture-war rulings tend to be just narrow enough to accommodate the consent of as many justices as possible, nothing more.
Stuart Adams, Utah’s Senate president and a key cog in what happened six years ago, believes the answers lie only with elected lawmakers, the people’s representatives, not with courts.
“I believe the legislative process is superior to any other process,” he said.
But it’s also the most difficult process. Presidents decree executive orders that often result in lawsuits resolved by Supreme Court justices who serve for life. State senators and representatives, by contrast, have to face the people who elected them, and who they hope will do so again. In Utah, one of a few states with a part-time Legislature, they live and work around those voters every day.
That makes the great compromise even more remarkable.
Adams made his comments as part of a virtual panel discussion Wednesday afternoon, sponsored by the Salt Lake Chamber in recognition of Pride month. He was joined by former Gov. Gary Herbert, Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, and University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky, who represented Equality Utah during the negotiations.
They shared stories about the seven years of careful discussions that led to the final compromise and spoke of what they had learned and how it could be applied to other areas of public life.
In an op-ed published this week by Newsweek, BYU assistant professor Daniel Frost and pre-law student Brady Earley said the compromise “continues to be the most workable model in the United States.”
They also described how it has led to a significant cultural shift in the state. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2019 found that 77% of Utahns now support state nondiscrimination protection for LGBTQ people, which ties for the second highest percentage in the United States.
Perhaps more significantly, however, the same survey found that only 49% of Utahns “oppose religiously based refusals to serve gay and lesbian people.” That was the lowest percentage of any state in the top 30 of those who supported nondiscrimination protection.
It’s evidence of what the four panelists said Wednesday, which is that the great compromise did not require either side to abandon or bend its core values.
Or, as Frost and Earley put it, “LGBTQ people are not going anywhere. Religious people who believe that marriage is a union of a man and a woman are not going anywhere. The individuals in these groups are going to have to find a way to live alongside each other, aiming for practicality over ideology.”
Finding that practical cake cutter isn’t easy, but it has its benefits.
Rosky, the attorney, spoke Wednesday about how surprised he was to find the process became fun as he built friendships with former foes and discovered how good it felt. Williams talked about how proud he is of Utah and how he keeps a photo of the bill signing in his office.
As for Herbert, he spoke about other governors asking him for copies of the legislation and wondering how Utah did it.
That hasn’t helped any of them duplicate the great compromise in their own states. Not yet, anyway. But if you believe in miracles, you’re not the kind who would give up hope so easily.