PROVO, Utah -- From the start, the "Utah compromise" on religious liberty and key gay-rights issues had that special sex appeal that made news.
Journalists knew it was impossible to produce this 2015 Utah bill without the cooperation of leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons in the Republican-dominated state legislature. Powerful LGBT leaders were in these negotiations, as well, and endorsed the final product.
The key -- for politicians using Utah as a template -- was that both sides made important compromises, while defending their core beliefs and goals, said the church's top lawyer, at a recent Brigham Young University conference on "Religious Freedom in an Era of Social Change."
"Some may be shocked to hear this, but not all religious freedoms are equally important," said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the LDS church. "Defenders of religious freedom have to decide what is closer to the essential core of religious freedom and what is more peripheral. To do otherwise risks weakening our defense of what is essential.
"If everything that could even loosely be considered 'religious' is treated as equally important, then effectively nothing religious is important."
Thus, the "Utah compromise" banned LGBT discrimination in housing and employment, while including explicit protections for religious organizations and their institutions, along with "carve-out" clauses protecting the beliefs of many individuals. County clerks, for example, are not required to approve gay marriages, but officials had to make other options easily available.
Wickman stressed that religious institutions must be able to defend and practice their own doctrines and traditions, selecting leaders and retaining members loyal to their faith. Believers must retain their First Amendment rights to politely share their beliefs with others, while fully participating in public life.
Recent flash points involving religious liberty and sexuality have centered on businesses operated by believers and religious institutions such as schools and social ministries, which often interact with the public, he said. Religious leaders must face reality and increase local, state and national efforts to defend the rights of believers who are doctors, lawyers, educators and small-business owners. Clashes over parental rights loom ahead, especially for those who choose to homeschool their children.
Powerful cultural forces are seeking to "characterize those with traditional beliefs as bigots," said Wickman. "The risk is that traditional believers and their religious institutions may eventually be relegated to pariah status -- officially recognized as 'equal citizens,' while in practical reality marginalized and penalized for their faith."
It's hard to believe that, as recently as 2013, coalitions of Democrats and Republicans passed religious-liberty bills in states such as Kansas and Hawaii, said law professor Brett G. Scharffs, director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies. Then, in 2014, major corporations began backing those who argued that bills defending religious liberty were merely shields protecting anti-LGBT forces. Political wars erupted in Indiana, Arizona and elsewhere.
Faith and sexuality are both powerful forces close to the heart of personal identity, stressed Scharffs. However, traditional believers cannot win a "zero-sum game conflict" with the sexual revolution in today's America. Thus, face-to-face efforts seeking compromise are crucial -- even as that work gets harder.
"We need strategies that will lower, rather than raise, the temperature and volume surrounding these controversies," he said. "We cannot expect the fire to be put out by people whose tools are matches and gasoline. We cannot allow the debate to be dominated by those whose primary tools are the bullhorn or math that requires us to express our ideas in 140 characters or less."
Obviously, added Wickman, pluralism is supposed to be the new American norm. The question is whether that pluralism will apply equally to all, requiring people whose lives center on radically different beliefs to find ways to live in tolerance.
The wisdom contained in the U.S. Constitution will not provide easy, automatic answers for all of these issues.
"As citizens of this nation, we have a duty to work with our fellow countrymen to find workable solutions to vexing problems -- including clashes of rights and fundamentally competing interests," said Wickman. "Making peace sometimes requires that we make compromises -- not compromises on our doctrines, beliefs or moral standards, of course, but compromises in the application of religious freedom to the practical realities of life in this diverse nation."