LDS press conference prompts hope for Utah nondiscrimination bill

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Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, and Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, speak at a Capitol news conference. (Ben Whisenant)

By Madeleine Lewis

The news that LDS Church leaders publicly endorsed nondiscrimination measures to protect LGBT people in employment and housing had reverberations just blocks away on Utah’s Capitol Hill.

Sens. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and Jim Debakis, D-Salt Lake City, expressed their appreciation to LDS Church leaders who, they said, made an “unequivocal endorsement” in a quickly called news conference at the Capitol, just two hours after the Church’s news conference.

On only the second day of the Utah 2015 Legislature, both lawmakers said they hoped the endorsement will prompt the Utah Legislature to pass a bill that protects against LGBT discrimination in housing and employment. They both said they are ready to pass a nondiscrimination bill and also work on religious liberty protections. Debakis is an openly gay member of the Utah Senate, while Urquhart represents a decidedly more rural and conservative district. Debakis praised Urquhart for taking up the cause in a district that might draw more political flak for controversial support for such a measure.

Debakis noted collaboration with the Church on the issue. “We still have differences, but we have chosen to approach the bridge of our understanding. … This is a terrific moment for Utah history on a lot of levels.”

Urquhart noted it was one of the happiest days in his 15 years serving at the Legislature.

In the past, opponents argued that passing nondiscrimination measures could have unintended consequences leading to a slippery slope of broadened rights. “If this is a slippery slope to non-discrimination,” Debakis said, “I say slip away.”

Urquhart’s bill is similar to an ordinance adopted in Salt Lake City and several other Utah municipalities. The bill’s objectives coincide with the comments made by LDS Church leaders in the morning news conference.

In particular, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the LDS Church Quorum of the Twelve and a former member of Utah’s Supreme Court, called on all levels of government to protect “all of their people.”

He specifically mentioned the need to safeguard religious freedom and protect LGBT citizens’ “housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation — protections which are not available in many parts of the country.”

Urquhart and others have introduced nondiscrimination bills in the Utah Legislature over the years with little success. Some previous bills never even got a hearing in a committee. However, Urquhart said as he listened to the Church’s news conference he had reason to believe this time would be different. “I heard an unequivocal endorsement,” Urquhart said.

Troy Williams, head of Equality Utah, was also hopeful after the news conference. He said the conditions are good for the bill’s passage.  He called the morning news conference an “ecclesiastical endorsement” of nondiscrimination measures and said both public opinion and legislative attention are inclined to see this bill pass.

“This bill will help us get housing and jobs in a place we call home,” Williams said.

Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel with the ACLU’s Utah chapter, said, “We are pleased and definitely applaud the LDS Church for taking this step forward and publicly supporting non-discrimination and some public accommodation protection.”

She cautioned that in Utah, “Our nondiscrimination code as it exists right now already has one of the broadest religious exemptions anywhere in the nation. So with the protection of gender identity and orientation, I think religious rights are already adequately protected.”

Other legislators were encouraged by the press conference. Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, is sponsoring a bill that addresses the other side of the LDS Church leader’s comments. If passed, it would allow Utahns to choose not to perform or recognize any rite, ceremony or service that officiators found to be inconsistent with their beliefs.

Anderegg wasn’t surprised by the news conference’s message. “It was always a question of when they would do it, not what they would actually do. I think it’s a very reasoned and measured response,” he said.

Gayle Rusicka, leader of Utah’s conservative Eagle Forum, sounded cautious after the Church’s news conference. She said the law shouldn’t create “long lists” of those who can be discriminated against. “We all have a right not to be discriminated against,” she said. “Just say all people are entitled to these protections, regardless of religious beliefs and regardless of lifestyle practices, then we can make this work.”

Contributing: William Glade

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