In the upcoming legislative session, lawmakers will decide whether to add employment protections to the Utah Antidiscrimination Act for people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, would ban the use of sexual orientation and gender identity in matters such as hiring, firing and promoting. State law already includes provisions against on-the-job discrimination based on characteristics such as race, religion or pregnancy.
Johnson acknowledged that she'll likely face an uphill battle in a state where lawmakers and voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and other domestic partnerships, and where inclusion of sexual orientation long made a hate crimes measure unpalatable to many conservative lawmakers.
But, she said, because of a lack of protection, some workers are fearful of being themselves at work. And a recent federal appeals court ruling drove home the point by saying that there's no protection in Utah based on gender identity.
"It's very clear that the dialogue needs to begin, and the dialogue is overdue," Johnson said. "I am expecting, very much, the same arguments from my conservative colleagues."
The U.S. Congress is also looking at the issue. The House of Representatives passed a similar federal measure in November, which is now on the Senate calendar.
However, Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville, questioned whether such employment discrimination is an issue that merits creating a new protected category.
"They already have sufficient protection," he said. "There just hasn't been demonstrated (evidence that) this is taking place or it is a significant issue."
There have been 14 inquiries regarding sexual orientation or transgender issues to the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division since June, said Heather Morrison, the division's director. The agency receives an average 735 inquiries each year, she said.
A report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that sexual orientation cases made up a relatively small percentage of discrimination cases in the 11 states and the District of Colombia, where there were non-discrimination laws in effect in 2001. In that year, the percentages ranged from a low 1.3 percent in New Jersey to a high 9 percent in the District of Columbia.
However, Will Carlson, manager of public policy for the gay-rights advocacy group Equality Utah, said, "While the numbers are relatively small, remember that the LGBT community is a small part of the total population."
Gayle Ruzicka, who heads the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, expressed concerns that the bill could lead to mandating domestic partner benefits, potentially under-cutting the state's marriage amendment. She also worried that it could lead to protections for unmarried couples or polygamists.
Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, who sponsored the marriage amendment, said, "The bottom line is: It's wrong, wrong and wrong."
Buttars said the bill would create a special sub-group based on an individual's choice, which could lead to an affirmative actionlike reverse discrimination.
However, Johnson said that, just as in the existing protected classes, the bill is narrowly tailored to only prevent employment discrimination. It includes an exemption for religious organizations, and it prohibits a quota system or preference based on sexual orientation or gender identity."This is simply limited to employment discrimination," Johnson said.