Tuesday morning, the Utah House of Representatives unanimously passed HCR 2 – Concurrent Resolution Designating Religious Freedom Day, designating January 16th as Religious Freedom Day and honoring the founding definition of Religious Freedom.
Sponsored by House Minority Leader Brian King (Democrat – Salt Lake City), HCR 2 recognizes the first religious freedom law in the United States, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was written by Thomas Jefferson and ushered into law in 1786 by James Madison. That law disestablished the state church, and held that an individual’s beliefs or non-beliefs “shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect [one’s] civil capacities.” In other words, what you believe or don’t believe cannot be used as an excuse to either withhold services from you, or give you an advantage that others do not have.
The resolution is particularly significant given the current debate around LGBTQ non-discrimination legislation—which would prohibit most employers or landlords from denying someone a job or housing based on their sexual orientation or gender identity—, which some conservatives are arguing should include language exempting employers and landlords from the law and allowing them to fire or evict LGBTQ people as long as they claim to be doing it for religious reasons.
Such an expansion of religious liberty would take the principle far beyond it’s original meaning protecting individuals’ beliefs and/or non-beliefs, and instead giving businesses and governments the right to force customers and citizens to comply with a particular belief set in order to obtain services.
“Utah has a particular history with religious freedom,” said King, alluding to Utah’s early days, when members of the LDS church fled to the state to escape governments and many private businesses which were persecuting individuals for their beliefs. His bill has the endorsement of clergy from the South Valley Unitarian church, First Baptist Church, and the Jewish Congregation of Kol Ami.
Representative LaVar Christensen (Republican – Draper), voiced strong support for the bill, which also received unanimous passage out of the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. “It’s important to remember the lessons of the past,” said Christensen.
As a resolution, King’s bill does not have any effect of law to prohibit businesses or local governments from discriminating against individuals for their beliefs or non-beliefs. However, if passed by the Senate, it could send a powerful message that Utah intends to honor the original definition of religious freedom.