LGBT rights, religious liberties bill passes Senate, advances to House

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, speaks to the Utah Senate about SB 296, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 6, 2015 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Senate, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY – Senate Bill 296, a proposed bill seeking to strike a balance between LGBT rights and religious liberties, passed the state Senate in a 23-5 vote Friday. It now goes to the Utah House for consideration.

SB 296, Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments, was officially introduced to the public Wednesday, unanimously passed the Senate Business and Labor Committee Thursday, and was then passed with a majority vote by the Senate Friday.

The Senate chambers erupted in applause and cheers from supporters as the president of the senate, Sen. Wayne L. Neiderhauser, R-Sandy, announced the bill had passed. Prior to the vote, various senators shared why they would or would not support the legislation.

“Utah is attempting to do something novel and do something great,” Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said. “We are attempting to balance LGBT rights in employment and housing with religious liberties, also in employment and housing, in a way that protects employees and employers and protects renters and landlords.”

Urquhart sponsored the bill in the Senate along with Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. Its House sponsor is Rep. Brad Dee.

The bill itself is the result of collaboration and compromise by members of the Legislature, LGBT community, religious groups and other stakeholders. It is also built upon nondiscrimination legislation originally proposed by Urquhart, which he has sought to get passed since 2012.

The bill amends the state’s current antidiscrimination and fair housing laws to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the list of characteristics employers and property owners cannot discriminate against. Employers, however, are not prohibited from setting “reasonable” standards of dress and grooming and designating sex-specific restroom and shower facilities, according to the bill.

Also under SB 296, someone who expresses religious, political or personal views about marriage, family or sexuality in a nondisruptive and nonharassing manner in the workplace – or outside the workplace – cannot be fired or denied housing on those grounds.

Religious institutions and their affiliates, religious schools, and the Boy Scouts of America are exempt.

“A couple of years ago, when Sen. Urquhart brought this bill, I thought he was crazy. I really did,” Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said. “I couldn’t understand what he was doing. I thought he was committing political suicide in the Republican Party – and I think I’ve changed a lot.”

Weiler said he had questions about the legislation and felt parts of it could be tweaked, but that overall he supported SB296 and praised the protections it gave to the LGBT community and religious expression.

“That’s what I love about this bill, that it’s balancing the rights of the LGBT community with the rights of the majority,” Weiler said.

Not everyone in the Senate was supportive of the bill.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she had concerns SB 296 was creating a special protecting class and ultimately voted against the bill.

According to language within the bill, it cannot be construed as creating “a special or protected class for any purpose other than employment.”

Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, the Senate’s sole black member, said it disturbed him that the bill and the LGBT community’s “crusade” were being compared to the civil rights movement of his forefathers.

Jackson said he felt placing gender identity and sexual orientation on the same list of protected characteristics as race minimized the efforts of those who lived through the civil rights era.

“I can’t accept that. I will never accept that,” he said.

Though he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jackson said, “my black Baptist roots won’t allow me to accept what’s in this legislation, adding he also felt there weren’t enough protections for individuals on the religious liberties side of the bill.

The LDS Church came out in support of SB 296 on Wednesday. Prior to that, the church stated its support of such legislation in a press conference in late January.

“What we’re talking about here is legal blah-blah … it’s not about the words,” Sen. James Dabakis, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said. “It’s about the core of our state. It’s about our soul. We are conservative. We are religious. We are also fair.”

Dabakis said SB 296 presented a chance to deliver a message to the people of the state and the world that Utah doesn’t discriminate.

“It’s not a part of us,” he said. “We’re open to everybody.”

After SB 296 passed the Senate, Urquhart told St. George News he felt a bit uncomfortable with all the praise he’d received for moving a nondiscrimination bill forward, which ultimately became SB 296. Others before him had laid the groundwork, he said.

There have been people who have fought for this for decades,” Urquhart said.

The senator said he expects the legislation will have a positive reception in the Utah House, adding that it had a very good House sponsor in Rep. Brad Dee.

“I think the bill has a very good chance of passing,” he said.

Overall, Urquhart said, the experience of getting the bill through thus far has been life-changing. Seeing it pass the Senate was “awesome” and “wonderful,” he said.

Ed. note: Representing Southern Utah: Sens. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe; Steve Urquhart, R-St. George; and Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City voted for SB 296. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, voted against it.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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