A new Salt Lake Tribune/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows that 67 percent of registered voters would support a law to let business owners deny consumer services on religious grounds, while 29 percent would not.
The question itself turns on the tension between religious freedom and the advancing civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens, who have been legally allowed to marry in all 50 states since 2015.
It’s also an issue that soon could be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in December will hear arguments in a dispute about a Colorado baker, who in 2012 refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.
Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips was sued for his refusal, saying he shouldn’t have to defy his religious beliefs just to run a bakery.
It’s an argument he lost, in part because Colorado has something both Utah and the federal government don’t: a public accommodation law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Right now, it’s perfectly legal in Utah to put a sign in your restaurant window that says we refuse service to gay people,” said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is currently the only openly gay member of the Legislature. “And if it happens, there’s nothing to be done.”
The poll shows broad support for laws that would protect religious freedom over public accommodation in almost every demographic queried, including age, gender, education and political affiliation or ideology.
Majority opposition was found only among Utah respondents who identified as Democrats (60 percent), those who considered themselves “liberal” (53 percent) and the “very liberal” (62 percent).
Among people of faith, only Catholics (60 percent) and those who said they affiliate with no religion (59 percent) opposed the law. Among other faiths, 70 percent of Protestants said they support the law, as did Mormons of every level of activity, at rates of 64 percent or higher.
The statewide poll, conducted Oct. 10 to 13 included 605 registered voters from Logan to St. George and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points.
Weber County resident Keri Wilde, who’s lived her whole life in Utah, found the poll unsurprising, given the state’s religious and political landscape.
“But I’m disappointed,” said Wilde, 49, who works in information technology. “I don’t think there should be a law that allows a business owner to say, ‘I can refuse you because of your orientation,’ any more than because you are Mexican, or Mormon, or Democrat, or anything else.”
Wilde said her belief in equality stems from her upbringing in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it’s a value that bleeds over into the choices she makes as a consumer.
“I would want to support businesses that would support nondiscrimination,” she said.
Poll respondents are not the only ones who favor protections for religious freedoms. Utah’s political leaders and institutions have also thrown their support behind Phillips and the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
The LDS Church joined other conservative faith traditions, including Orthodox Jews and evangelicals in supporting Phillips. In a friend-of-the-court brief, Utah’s predominant church said justices should protect the “religious liberties of conscientious objectors” just as it has the rights of LGBTQ persons.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is among the congressional leaders weighing in for Phillips, as has Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and his counterparts in 20 states.
Twenty-two of 24 members of Utah’s Senate Republican caucus also filed a brief supporting Phillips, touting the state’s compromise nondiscrimination bill from 2015. That successful measure, pushed by the LDS Church, balanced protections for the LGBTQ community in housing and employment, along with the rights of people of faith.
Such interests “need not be fought as a zero-sum conflict with political winners and losers,” the filing states. Another piece of the Utah’s compromise, was the passage of SB297, also in 2015, said Bill Duncan of the conservative Sutherland Institute and one of the authors of the Senate caucus brief.
Under that law, a county clerk could decline to handle a same-sex couple’s marriage license application on religious grounds, as long as the office provides an alternate staff member to do so.
“It has the virtue of providing access without going further and requiring someone to do something they are uncomfortable with,” he said.
The concern for conservatives and business owners, he added, is whether public accommodation laws may go so far that people of good faith might break the law simply by maintaining their First Amendment right not to recognize or endorse same-sex unions.
Duncan believes it’s possible to find a middle way, but said he’ll be watching the Phillips case closely to see how it will shape the legislative debate on public accommodation in Utah, which has stalled in recent years.
Dabakis contends that any business owner who is licensed by the state to do business with the public should not be allowed to discriminate against LGBTQ consumers. He also sees no evidence of any crisis of religious freedoms in Utah, nor is he sure how people could prove their discrimination is truly tied to their religious beliefs.
“Do you have a jury decide?” he asked.
On Monday, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who is openly gay, joined Dabakis and other Democrats expressing opposition in the Phillips case, adding her name to a brief filed by 80 other mayors and 70 counties, cities and towns.