Nondiscrimination, religious liberties bill unveiled, praised by officials

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an apostle of the Church Christ of Latter-day Saints, addresses Utah lawmakers and others at a press conference introducing Utah Bill 296, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 4, 2015 | Photo courtesy by Intellectual Reserve, Inc., courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY – Proposed legislation aiming to safeguard religious liberties while also extending protections in housing and employment to the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens was introduced Wednesday afternoon. The proposed bill is praised by state leaders, gay rights groups and leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The proposed legislation, Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments, as Senate Bill 296, was originally brought as a nondiscrimination bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-Utah, who has been seeking to get it passed for the last three years. The bill took on a new form as officials and others called for protections for religious liberties to coincide with nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community.

“We’ve found a way to bring those two issues together,” said Sen. Stuart J. Adams, R-Layton, a co-sponsor of SB 296, during a press conference Wednesday. The legislation will respect the rights of some without infringing on the rights of others, he said.

SB 296 is the product of weeks of work between legislators, gay rights groups, religious groups and other stakeholders, officials said during the press conference.

Today we take a tremendous step to advancing freedom,” Urquhart said, “and with that the well being of all citizens within Utah.

If passed, the bill will amend the state’s existing Antidiscrimination Act and Fair Housing Act to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the list of characteristics employers and property owners cannot discriminate against.

Generally, the law would apply to businesses with 15 or more employees and rental or lease properties consisting of four or more dwelling units.

Employers can put in place “reasonable dress and grooming standards” for their places of business, as well as polices and rules that designate sex-specific restrooms, shower and dressing facilities in the workplace, provided those standards and so forth “afford reasonable accommodations based on gender identity to all employees.”

On the matter of religious liberties, Urquhart said, he is very proud of that part of the bill.

This part of the bill makes it very clear that people of faith can act like people of faith; that they can talk like people of faith – and be protected also in employment and housing,” Urquhart said.

Under SB 296, someone who expresses religious views about marriage, family, or sexuality in a nondisruptive and nonharassing manner in the workplace, cannot be fired or denied employment on those grounds – provided doing so isn’t in “direct conflict with the essential business-related interests of the employer.”

The protection also extends to an individual’s expression of religious belief or commitments that occur outside of the workplace.

Religious organizations and their affiliates, such as the LDS Church’s Brigham Young University, would be exempt from the provisions of this law. The Boy Scouts of America would also be exempt.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this thing and I think this represents a product that is great for the people of our state and can serve as a great model for the people of this nation,” Urquhart said.

Sen. James Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, an openly gay member of the Legislature, said he was proud to be a Utahn today.

“Religious liberties, nondiscrimination – those are Utah values,” Dabakis said. “This is the best of Utah,” he said.

Dabakis also issued the following statement after SB 296 was publicly released:

This is a momentous moment in Utah’s cultural history. It is not a win for one side or the other, it is a win for all Utahns. This bill is a model–not just of legislation but more importantly–of how to bridge the cultural rift tearing America apart.

After the divisiveness and bitterness of 2008’s Prop 8, the LDS Church and the LGBT community began to come together. We have rolled up our sleeves, and with respect and civility, we have found common ground.

This bill is the result of those discussions, as well as countless other gatherings with important community groups all across Utah.

Representatives of Equality Utah were also present at the press conference. Troy Williams, Equality Utah’s executive directive, said that when he was younger, he felt there was no future for him as a gay man in Utah.

“I wish that that 20-year-old me could have gazed into the future to see this day, where leaders from the gay and transgender community are standing side-by-side with leaders of the LDS Church – apostles of the LDS Church – to work together to provide protections to 55,000 gay and transgender Utahns,” Williams said.

According to a 2014 study by the Williams Institute, Williams said, there are approximately 55,000 LGBT adults in Utah, including just over 37,000 who are part of the state’s workforce. Of that number, 43 percent of LGBT workers have reported being fired, harassed or denied promotion due to their sexual orientation. Of transgender Utahns, 67 percent have reported the same.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an apostle of the LDS Church, said the church is pleased with the balance of LGBT rights and religious liberties SB 296 proposes.

“Despite the challenges and difficulties, the complexity of negotiations, a spirit of respect and goodwill has allowed all involved to respect the differences of one another to bring about Senate Bill 296,” Christofferson said.

Sister Neill F. Marriott, of the church’s Young Women’s general presidency, expressed similar sentiments: “Because of the efforts of many, Senate Bill 296 is now before the Utah Legislature. We are happy to be here today and give our support to this bill.”

In late January, the LDS Church announced its support for local, state and national protections for LGBT individuals in housing and employment, yet also called for protections for religious liberties as a part of that.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Utah also praised SB 296.

“Everyone deserves to be free from discrimination in their workplace and in their homes,” said Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah. “We strongly urge our legislators to adopt this legislation.”

Gov. Gary R. Herbert also commented on the proposed bill:

Today’s announcement is a great example of what makes Utah great. We work together to tackle difficult issues. I applaud members of the House and the Senate for working with the LGBT community and religious, business and civic leaders toward a worthy goal. The way our state has addressed this issue will serve as a model for the rest of the nation.

SB 296 is set to be heard in the Senate Business and Labor Committee Thursday at 8 a.m.

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Twitter: @MoriKessler

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