The Utah State Senate passed an LGBT anti-discrimination bill on Friday that has received widespread support from both gay and transgender rights groups as well as officials from the state’s populous religious community.
The bill, introduced this week and unanimously approved Thursday by the Senate’s Republican-controlled Business and Labor Committee, passed in the Senate at a 23-5 vote. It would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Utah from both housing and employment discrimination. Advocates hope that it can be a model for other conservative states that seek to strike a balance between civil rights and constituents’ religious views.
If it passes in the House and is signed into law, Utah would join 18 other states and Washington, D.C. that have laws on the books barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the ACLU.
“This is an extraordinary moment for the state of Utah, for LGBT Americans, and for the Mormon Church, which, by supporting this legislation, shows a willingness to align with others on the right side of history,” Chad Griffin, president of LGBT rights group Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. “The desire exhibited by the Mormon Church to work toward common ground should serve as a model for other faith traditions here in the United States.”
But there is a catch. Religious groups would be exempt from the legislation, as would church-affiliated groups such as the Boy Scouts of America, which in Utah has strong ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and prohibits gay Scout leaders from participating.
Nonetheless, several senators on Friday compared the discrimination that the LGBT community faces to their own struggles as ethnic minorities, according to the Associated Press.
Democratic Sen. Jani Iwamoto, who is of Japanese ancestry, spoke of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
"This is the civil rights issue of our time," Iwamoto told the AP.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, expressed support for the bill on Friday by telling his colleagues, many of whom are also members of the LDS church, that their ancestors were once discriminated against when they practiced polygamy.
"America thought that Mormons were sexually deviant because they chose to share their love in a way that was not conventional," said Stephenson, according to the AP.
While several states have passed laws banning LGBT discrimination, Utah’s proposed law is unique in that it has enjoyed the support of Mormon Church leaders in a conservative state that had passed a law banning gay marriage. That ban was struck down in 2013 by a federal judge, after which thousands of same-sex couples got married. The judge’s ruling was later upheld by an appeals court and declined to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said he will sign the bill if it passes, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune. And State Sen. Todd Weiler, a Republican and self-professed conservative Mormon from Woods Cross, got emotional during a committee meeting, saying that he had met many transgender people, and that he “understands that those people are different than I am, and that they have rights, and I am 100 percent convinced that they should be protected,” according to the AP.
Civil rights advocates say the agreement between the church and civil rights groups has been a long time coming following seven years of talks and negotiations.
“I think at least it puts LGBT folks on the same level as all the other folks,” said Marina Lowe, legislative counsel with ACLU of Utah, adding that the state’s protections for religious freedom are already very broad. “In that sense, it’s treating everybody the same. So I think that is a step forward for our state.”
But the law does not protect Utah’s LGBT community — some 55,000 people, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute — against discrimination in what is known as public accommodation. That means that businesses, doctors, restaurants and others in the public sphere can refuse to serve or work with LGBT people based on religious beliefs, and they won’t be breaking the law. Last month, for example, a Detroit-area pediatrician refused to treat the newborn daughter of a lesbian couple due to her religious beliefs, but was not remiss under the law because Michigan doesn’t protect against it.
“That’s an area that still is lacking, and we need to have both dialogue and meaningful legislation put in place,” Lowe said.
Also of concern is a bill introduced late Thursday by Utah State Sen. J. Adams Stuart, a co-sponsor of the original anti-discrimination bill, which would allow county clerks the right to refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies based on religious beliefs, but those clerks would then be exempt from performing any marriage ceremonies. Lowe says that aspects of the language in the newer bill may be able to undermine the protections of the original anti-discrimination bill.
“We are worried that broad individual exemptions may be granted to an unlimited amount of people,” Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, said in a statement. “We will not support any legislation that may adversely impact the fundamental rights of LGBT Utahns.”
But Christy Mallory, senior counsel at the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA School of Law focused on sexual orientation and gender identity law, says the legislation sends an important message, particularly because it has been a few years since any U.S. state has passed anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“This will signal to conservative states that it is possible, that a bill that everyone is happy with can be reached, and the sky won’t fall,” she said.
With news services