Utah Legislature: GOP senators step back on gay rights legislation

Published: Thursday, Feb. 4 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP senators want to impose a one-year moratorium on any new local government ordinances aimed at protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

They also want to ignore a proposed interim study on the extent of the problem, a key piece of a new bipartisan truce on gay rights-related legislation this session.

"Let's lay low for a year," Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Wednesday, and see what happens with new ordinances passed by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County banning employment and housing discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The ordinances had the support of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Niederhauser said that has given lawmakers pause.

"Salt Lake City passed the ordinance. The church weighed in on that," he said. "I think that's created all kinds of questions. The church coming out in favor obviously caught us off guard."

A church representative told the Salt Lake City Council last November the church supported the ordinance "because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage."

Wednesday, LDS Church spokesman Scott Trotter said, "We confirmed the other day that church leaders asked legislators to not overturn the Salt Lake City ordinance."

Niederhauser said the intent of waiting a year to deal with the issue at both the state and local level is "to let it cool off."

But the proposal may jeopardize a new agreement to hold off on any gay rights-related legislation this session and instead study the issue over the interim.

The list of such legislation ranged from attempts to undo the city and county ordinances to extending their protections to gays and lesbians throughout the state.

Niederhauser acknowledged the truce could be in trouble. "It has that potential," he said. "But they didn't do their homework. The press conference, I thought, was premature."

Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, had put together the truce and are co-sponsoring a bill calling for the interim study. When the compromise was announced last Friday, it was described as having the support of House and Senate leaders.

"This is not something that requires continued negotiation. Either we have an agreement or we do not," Johnson said. "I am hopeful the Republicans are as committed to our agreement as I am. If they're not, they need to be clear about it."

Johnson, one of two openly gay Utah lawmakers, stopped short of saying she was ready to move forward with her original bill calling for a state law similar to the city and county ordinances.

Stephenson, however, said the compromise was only a start on a truce. He said he agreed with a moratorium on new local government ordinances.

"I think it's a good idea to get other municipalities to wait and see how this works out," Stephenson said. "That's in everybody's best interest."

He said, though, some sort of interim study was needed. "We ought to look at the data if we're going to be considering legislation," Stephenson said, adding he would be open to how that study would be structured.

Republican senators have not taken a formal position on the moratorium on local government action, but are expected to discuss details today in a closed-door caucus. GOP House members apparently are waiting for the Senate to take the lead.

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