ST. GEORGE – Though his proposed antidiscrimination bill died in the state legislature earlier this year after passing a senate committee by one vote, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said he plans to resubmit Senate Bill 262 in the next legislative session where he believes it will pass. Opponents of the bill aren’t so anxious to see that happen.
Urquhart’s Employment and Antidiscrimination Housing Amendments Bill would amend Utah’s current employment and housing antidiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A number of Utah cities, including Moab and Springdale, have already passed antidiscrimination employment and housing ordinances benefitting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in recent years. However, Urquhart wants to see uniformity in laws throughout the state.
“These laws help us create a better society,” Urquhart said.
While Urquhart’s work on behalf of the LGBT community in the legislature has won him some praise from advocacy groups, not everyone shares Urquhart’s belief that passage of the amendment will be beneficial. To the contrary, opponents such as state Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, and Gayle Ruzika, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said they believe the legislation is potentially dangerous and opens the door to potential threats against religious freedoms.
Reid was on the Senate committee that gave favorable recommendation to the antidiscrimination bill during the Legislature’s 2013 general session, though he was not among those who voted for it (the bill was favored 4-3 yea-nay).
“I cannot advance policy, that frankly encourages the societal acceptance of something that I think is immoral, which is what I think this legislation does,” Reid told the Daily Herald following the vote in March.
Ruzicka also takes issue with the proposed bill. In an editorial published in Deseret News Wednesday, Ruzicka outlined concerns related to the gender identity portion of the amendment.
According to language included in the bill, Gender identity is defined as:
An individual’s internal sense of gender, without regard to the individual’s designated sex at birth. Evidence of gender identity may include an individual’s self-identification, as well as the individual’s gender-related appearance, mannerisms, and other gender-related characteristics.
Under the proposed amendments, a person is who she or he thinks she or he is, regardless of anatomy. If a woman identifies as a man, or a man as a woman, then that is who that person is, and employers will need to accommodate said individuals accordingly. This would extend to how the individual dresses and to which restroom or shower facilities may be used.
Reid and Ruzicka are holding a series of public meetings across the state outlining their objections to the antidiscrimination bill and what they fear may come about in Utah if the bill were allowed to pass. One of those addresses was in Washington City recently where they addressed a small crowd affiliated with the Dixie Republican Forum.
Religious liberties and “sexual civil rights”
Reid started the Dixie Republican Forum meeting with a speech. The overall theme of the speech dealt with the belief that legislation like Urquhart’s antidiscrimination bill lends both societal and legal legitimacy to additional laws catering to what he termed as “sexual civil rights,” and could ultimately become a threat to the personal religious liberties.
“When one scrapes away all of the rhetoric for and against SB 262, remaining is the fundamental question (of) whether homosexual activity is immoral, “Reid said. “All pertinent public policy should flow from the answer to this question, including special antidiscrimination protections, rights of adoption, and same-sex marriage.”
As legislators and judges tend to adapt laws and rulings to the moral climate they inherit, Reid said, religion provides a counter to man’s short-sightedness. He said:
To compensate for the inevitable destructive results of humanity’s short-term vision, religion stands as on sacred ground as a guardian over timeless, moral laws. As long as religion is true to its mission by defending these moral laws, then it will remain relevant and can help guide society on a secure course through the generations of time.
However, whenever religion attempts to make a stand now, Reid said, it is chased out of the public square and decried as bigoted and lacking compassion for the LGBT community. In order to avoid the backlash and remain relevant, some religious organizations have begun to champion “sexual civil rights” and call for compassion and tolerance, while others face potential antidiscrimination suits for not capitulating.
Reid said he was aware of at least 60 court cases “being adjudicated to determine whether religion, its affiliated organizations and people of religious conscience will be forced to choose between their educational, medical charitable and business activities and their freedom and religion and conscience.”
During her half of the presentation, Ruzicka used known science fiction author Orson Scott Card as an example of someone who has been attacked for his views against same-sex marriage.
“How is this not discrimination?” Ruzicka said. She highlighted recent events where Card had been contracted with DC Comics to write for one of its Superman titles. However, due to public outcry accusing Card of hate and an 18,000-signature-strong online petition, the artist involved left the project and DC ultimately shelved it. Others have vowed to boycott the movie “Ender’s Game,” which is currently playing in theaters and is based on one of Card’s most popular novels.
“They want to destroy his career,” Ruzicka said.
SB 262: What it does and does not do
“Does it seem right or fair that you should have to give up your religious rights and freedoms for someone else’s sexual activities?” Reid said during his speech.
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said that wasn’t something SB 262 would do, or was meant to do.
The bill deals with housing and employment rights, she said, not public accommodation.
According to Title II of the Civil Rights Act: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Federal law currently does not include sexual orientation and gender identity on the list of protected classes in this regard, but a number of states do. It is in these states where business owners who have declined to do business relating to same-sex marriage/unions have been sued for discrimination related to public accommodation.
Being a housing and employment bill, if passed next year, the proposed antidiscrimination laws will only apply to businesses with 15 or more employees and landlords with five or more rental properties. Religion-affiliated businesses and housing facilities would be considered exempt.
The bill doesn’t require anyone to go against their religious beliefs, Balken said.
If passed, the bill would protect someone from being fired or evicted on the sole basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Employers and landlords still have the freedom to fire and evict individuals who are lousy employees and tenants, Balken said.
The proposed antidiscrimination bill would provide “the most basic expansion of rights” to the LGBT community statewide, Balken said. “I believe everyone should be protected under the law – period.”
Equality Utah has conducted a statewide poll showing that at least 70-75 percent of Utahns are in favor housing and employment protections, Balken said.
“As a people, we do not believe in denying basic rights and freedoms to others. I hope the state Legislature (and Sen. Reid) listens to the people of Utah,” she said.
He has experienced a significant level of support for SB 262 from constituents across Washington County, Urquhart said; it has been a welcome surprise.
As for worries that the legislation will open potential floodgates resulting in litigation against landlords and business owners, Urquhart said experience has shown him that will not likely be the case.
“I think we’re going to pass it (next year),” Urquhart said.
“I very much hope that is the case,” Balken said.
Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013
Currently on the national stage is ENDA, or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act of 2013, that would extend employment rights and protections to LGBT individuals. It passed a procedural vote in the U.S. Senate Monday and it is anticipated to pass the Senate overall. However, its fate in the House remains uncertain as Speaker John Boehner has already voiced his opposition to the legislation.
Sen. Orrin Hatch supports ENDA, while Sen. Mike Lee stands opposed to it.
Balken said she would like to see the proposed law pass yet, noting how well the Senate and House work together these days, she wasn’t holding her breath.
Even if ENDA did pass, it would only address 50 percent of what SB 262 would cover on the state-level, she said.
Federal – H.R. 1755 ENDA 113th Congress – 20130425
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