By Madeleine Lewis
The nondiscrimination and religious liberty bill was given a unanimous, favorable recommendation after a two-hour, emotional Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting, in which lawmakers addressed residents’ concerns. It heads for a full Senate debate Friday afternoon.
Committee members, LGBT activists and religious group leaders applauded the bill’s balancing of rights and protections and the collaboration that went into its creation. The hearing came a day after two members of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve and LGBT leaders endorsed the bill in a Capitol news conference. SB296 will be heard on the Senate floor Friday, March 6, at 3 p.m.
“I have never spent more time evaluating whether or not to support one particular bill and agonizing over every detail and every word as I have with this one,” said Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork. “And I believe this bill strikes a wonderful balance.”
“Some of us thought this was an impossible task,” said bill sponsor Sen. J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “We had a choice to let this divide us, Sen. Urquhart and Sen. Adams. We chose to unite rather than divide. We chose to look for tolerance.”
Laura Bunker, representative of United Families International, said, “While we see room for improvement, we support this bill because of its religious protections.”
During the debate, 12 individuals raised their hands to speak against the bill.
Recognizing the historic nature of the bill, several citizen speakers were concerned that it was too rushed, in this the last week of the 2015 legislative session.
“A real important and historic bill requires more time and respect,” Utahn George Chavern said. “I’m urging you to send it to interim for further study, because we still have questions about education issues, whether sexual harassment will be increased with this bill.”
Bill sponsors and LGBT advocates disagreed. Marina Lowe, ACLU legislative counsel, said this process has persisted for more than seven years because it was the “right thing to do.”
“This is not a new issue. This is new language, and I think it’s not perfect language, but it’s good language,” said Sen. Todd Wieler, R-Woods Cross.
He said the legislative session is short, so many things get rushed, but this one is worth it.
“The reason this bill took so long to come out was there was an extraordinary effort to involve many of the stakeholders,” Wieler said.
Bill sponsors Adams and Sen. Stephen H. Urquhart, R-St. George, answered questions about who would be affected should the bill become law.
The bill is crafted to protect the free expression of religious and LBGT groups.
Under this bill, the Utah police officer who didn’t want to participate in the Gay Pride parade wouldn’t have been punished for swapping duties with another willing officer. Celebrating isn’t in his job description, so this switch was “reasonable, non-disruptive and non-harassing,” language that appears in the bill.
However, this stipulation has its limits.
“If a paramedic says, ‘I’m not going to pump that person’s heart and keep them alive because they’re gay,’ that’s a problem,” Wieler said. “His (Officer Moutsos’s) job, as I see it, is not to celebrate rights or celebrate parades, so I see that as the difference.”
Principal of American Heritage School Grant Beckwith worried that his school, which has strong Latter-day Saint Church influences but is not a Church-affiliated school, would be affected by this rule. Adams and Urquhart said it would not.
Representing herself as a citizen, Mary Summerhays asked for clarification on how the bill would prevent individuals from taking advantage of the shift in the separation of male and female public bathrooms, since the “proper purpose” of these facilities would no longer be for anatomical reasons.
“While protecting gender identity, we’re also protecting employers,” Urquhart said. “There are several criteria there where we can see this is someone who has this sincerely held belief and it’s not someone just messing around.”
Other citizens said the bill was in violation of God’s law and therefore should not be part of Utah’s state law.
Sen. Ralph Okurlund, R-Monroe, encouraged the audience to continue to be part of the process by attending the House hearing and writing, texting and calling representatives to give testimony of the process because there is still time.