By Will Ranstrom
‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ is perhaps the most well-known and often quoted phrases of the Declaration of Independence, yet one of the most enigmatic phrases enshrined in the annals of American history. If you were to ask 100 random folks on the streets of any town in Idaho what that phrase means, you may receive 100 different responses, though the overall gist would likely remain the same. Most responders would include the rights to be free, to love and be loved, and to be able to care and provide for their loved ones.
I have my own articulation of the phrase: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the promise that the government will not unnecessarily restrict my path to creating my own version of a loving and supportive family and community. Within that family and community, I should be able to obtain housing, be gainfully employed, associate with whomever I choose and create a family as I see fit for me. In short, I should be able to live my life as I deem appropriate to my core values, provided that in such pursuit my actions do not interfere with the lives of others who are pursuing their own versions of life, liberty, and happiness.
Where one person’s rights end and another’s begin may seem like a juxtaposition, especially when those rights appear diametrically opposed. However, it becomes easier to see that apparently opposing rights can and should harmoniously exist when you step back and empathetically view the similarities between apparently opposing communities. Through my experiences, I have recognized the similarities between a misunderstood religious community and the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community. These experiences, in turn, have given me an understanding that could help the religious and LGBTQ communities to resolve their legal tension.
I was born in Pocatello, Idaho, in 1976 to a mixed family: my father’s side was a mix of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) and “Jack Mormons” (colloquial slang for non-practicing LDS members); and my mother’s side was a mix of LDS, “Jack Mormons,” and Mennonites. Neither of my parents strictly subscribed to any religion, and my sister and I were given wide latitude to attend any services that we cared to attend with our friends or family while my parents attended their own Sunday services that were usually officiated by the National Football League.
By the time I was a teenager, I had attended services with the Mormons, the Mennonites, the Catholics, the Baptists, and the Protestants. Admittedly, I did not attend so many services because I was seeking to find a deeper connection to religion. Rather, I attended to seek a deeper connection with my friends and family who had invited me to join them.
As an astute student, I was fascinated by the rituals in each service and always paid close attention to the message that what was being taught. The rituals were always different. Sometimes the congregation sat, but sometimes they stood or kneeled. Sometimes the congregation was completely silent, yet sometimes they interacted with the minister or sang hymns.
The story told to convey the message also varied greatly, but the overall theme of the individual messages remained constant. Sometimes the story was funny and entertaining, but sometimes it was grim and sobering. Sometimes the story was plain and the message was clear, yet sometimes the story was abstract and the message was discovered only through reflection and contemplation. Whatever the differences in ritual or theme, however, the overarching message was nearly always the same: love, understanding, and compassion for your fellow human beings, while allowing the Creator to be the judge of virtuosity.
When I decided to live my life openly and honestly as a gay man, it was 1998. Coming out was beginning to become more mainstream in American society by then. Several celebrities had come out, “Will & Grace” was a popular prime-time sitcom on network television, and nationwide companies such as Budweiser and Wells Fargo had begun to openly court the LGBTQ community. My friends and family were mostly accepting, and those who struggled with my open identity soon realized that I was essentially the same person they always knew and loved and that by living my life openly I had blossomed into a happier and more joyous person who no longer carried the burdens of secrecy.
The Legal Tension
As society, in general, has become more accepting of the LGBTQ community since the late 1990s, the laws of the United States have slowly followed suit. Some states extended civil union and equal protection rights to their LGBTQ citizens and eventually other states extended marriage rights to their LGBTQ citizens. The United States Supreme Court eventually decriminalized same-sex sexual conduct,[i] declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional,[ii] and eventually legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.[iii]
Yet as LGBTQ rights have expanded, the tension between the religious and the LGBTQ communities has increased. The crux of the tension was exemplified in Masterpiece Cakeshop.[iv] In Masterpiece, a Christian baker in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony, citing First Amendment religious freedom protections.[v] The same-sex couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act which forbade discrimination based on sexual orientation.[vi] The baker was found in violation of the Act and appealed the ruling.[vii] The U.S. Supreme Court held that, though Colorado had the right to protect its LGBTQ citizens, it must do so without animus towards the religious person or their sincerely held religious beliefs.[viii]
To say that the Masterpiece decision did little to resolve the tension between the religious and LGBTQ communities is a vast understatement. In states such as Idaho, that have yet to include LGBTQ protections in their Human Rights Acts, the tension has increased. So, the question becomes, how can the two communities co-exist with maximum legal protections for each without stifling the legal protections of the other?
Understanding Our Similarities
Though the religious and LGBTQ communities may seem strikingly different, they share similarities in past discrimination and misunderstanding. They also share a commonality in their seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Human history is filled with examples of religious discrimination from the beginnings of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to our present day. Many Idahoans are likely most familiar with the history of the LDS church and know that LDS members faced discrimination and misunderstanding from the inception of the Church. My grandmother would tell stories of the faithful followers being ostracized and expelled from their communities because their religion and its practices were new and unfamiliar to the non-believers. The followers were forced to relocate from New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Nebraska until finally finding refuge in what would become Utah in order to find a safe place to freely practice their religion.
Within the Utah Territory and its surrounding areas, the Mormons flourished and were able to establish loving, safe, and compassionate communities where they could live their lives openly, freely, and without interference from those who may not have understood the core values that the LDS church embraced.
Similarly, the LGBTQ community has faced discrimination and misunderstanding throughout human history. Members of the LGBTQ community continue to be ostracized, expelled, jailed, beaten, stoned, and even killed because of their sexual identity. In some predominately Muslim countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon, and Bahrain, the conviction of homosexual conduct was and remains today punishable by up to 10 years in prison.[ix] Prior to Lawrence, a conviction of sodomy in Idaho was punishable by five years to life in prison.[x]
Many LGBTQ individuals were forced from their homes and communities because of their sexuality and sought refuge in larger cities where others had established LGBTQ communities and neighborhoods, like San Francisco’s Castro district or New York City’s Greenwich Village. Within these neighborhoods, LGBTQ citizens also flourished and were able to establish loving, safe, and compassionate communities where they could live their lives openly, freely, and without interference from those who may not have understood the core values that the LGBTQ community embraced.
For both the Mormon and LGBTQ communities, isolation was not the desired end, but instead the means necessary to create a home where they could feel protected and safe. Both communities sought an environment where they could create a family, obtain housing, and earn a living to support their families. Both communities sought a home where they could be free of hate and animosity, and where both could pursue their own versions of happiness.
The similarities between the communities and their abilities to thrive when isolated may lead you to think that separation is the solution for the two communities to live how they see fit. However, life in the Information Age makes that solution untenable. Technology has connected nearly every corner of the planet, and total isolation now requires a level of retreat that most people would eschew because human nature demands a greater sense of community and connection. Additionally, I doubt that most of us would want to live in a completely homogenous society, free from fresh, new ideas and perspectives.
So, what is the solution to a harmonious, legally viable coexistence? I do not know the answer.
What I do know is that some truths are self-evident: all humans seek to create a safe, loving, compassionate community and family life in which they can thrive, love, and be loved. We all want to go about our daily lives without being hassled about our core beliefs and without compromising our core values. We all want to celebrate the joys and accomplishments of life, and we all want to find comfort and solace in our friends and family during life’s inevitable tragedies. We are all human and we all have similar basic human needs.
If we can try to understand each other’s perspectives, realize that we all have the same basic human needs, that our own core values may not strictly mirror that of our neighbors, and realize that our differences enrich us instead of devalue us, we can find the solution that works best for us all to live openly, freely, and harmoniously.
Will Ranstrom, 42, is originally from Pocatello, Idaho. He is currently fulfilling a long-held dream of obtaining his J.D. from Concordia University School of Law. He married his husband, Ryan, in 2017 and they reside with their two dogs, Gilly and Betty, in Boise.
[i] Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)
[ii] United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013)
[iii] Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015)
[iv] Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Com’n., 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018)
[v] Id. at 1723
[viii] Id. at 1732