LGBT nondiscrimination and religious freedom passes Senate, faces House scrutiny

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By Jeremy Harris

Modifications to the Utah Anti-Discrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act passed the Senate in a 23-5 vote after being considered through an expedited process.

Although the bill passed with an overwhelming majority, several senators rose to speak about the bill, which has received support from LGBT leaders and local religious leaders, including an endorsement from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune, Francisco Kjolseth
Proponents of nondiscrimination religious liberties bill SB296 celebrate the vote 23-5 by the Senate to pass the bill following extensive discussion in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6. (Jeremy Harris)

“For us to come together as religious folk and the gay, lesbian and transgender community and really pass something so meaningful, I think that this is huge,” said Derek Kitchen, a candidate for Salt Lake City Council and plaintiff in last year’s same-sex marriage case in Utah.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, was one of the first to speak in support of the bill and related a story of a young man who “was asked at his last job in Emery County to hide the fact that he was struggling with his sexual orientation.”

“I am convinced that we do have a problem,” Weiler said.

The 35-page bill, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s current anti-discrimination law for housing and employment, met with some consternation.

Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, the only black senator in the Utah State Senate, spoke passionately about his experiences of discrimination as a youth in Maryland. He said hearing the LGBT community compare its plight to the civil rights crusade of his forefathers is “one of the things that concerns me about this bill and actually disturbs me to my very core.”

“When you take the list that has race and add sexual orientation to it, I can’t accept that. I will never accept that,” Jackson continued.

Also, Sen. Mark Benson Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs, expressed concern, suggesting that the LDS Church supports the bill but does not want to abide by the same standard set out in the legislation. Still, he voted in favor of the bill’s passage.

The LDS Church publicly endorsed SB296 two days before the bill was heard by the Senate.

“The principle that we have urged legislators to address is that of fairness for everyone. In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others,” the statement said.

The Church continued with an explanation of the bill’s effects, stating it would protect LGBT individuals from being fired or denied housing, while also protecting religious conscience and the right to behave in accordance with deeply held religious beliefs.

Last year, the “Capitol 13″ were arrested following a protest of the legislature’s failure to pass an anti-discrimination bill.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, the sponsor of last year’s bill and of SB296, addressed the swell of support the effort has received this legislative session. “Last year we couldn’t even get a hearing, so what a difference a year makes.”

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D–Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of the Senate, said the bill will provide LGBT people dignity and respect in society.

“What we are talking about here is legal blah, blah. It’s not about the words; it’s about the core of our state. It’s about our soul,” Dabakis said.

SB296 was scheduled for consideration by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, March 9, afternoon. It should then advance to the House Chamber for another vote and, if approved, will make its way to the desk of Gov. Gary Herbert, who has already expressed his support of the measure.

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