Salt Lake City has become the first Utah city to offer housing and employment protections for gays and lesbians — an action supported by the Mormon church.
The City Council, in a unanimous vote Tuesday, passed a pair of nondiscrimination ordinances that would bar landlords and employers from discriminating based on sexuality — a protection not currently afforded under state or federal laws.
In a rare public appearance before local lawmakers, a representative from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read a supporting statement at a public hearing before the Salt Lake City Council regarding the ordinances proposed by Mayor Ralph Becker.
"The church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage," said Michael Otterson, managing director of the LDS Church's public affairs office.
Otterson added that the statement of support is consistent with the church's prior position on such matters, as well as its stance on marriage. Both are found in the church's August 2008 statement titled "The Divine Institution of Marriage," www.newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-divine-institution-of-marriage.
That statement, released prior to California's Proposition 8 vote last year on a constitutional amendment defining marriage, says the LDS Church "does not object to rights regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference."
And in his comments Tuesday night, Otterson underscored the LDS Church's position on marriage.
"The church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman," he said.
In addition to agreeing with Becker's approach to the ordinances, the church also recognizes the proposal attempts to balance vital issues of religious freedom, Otterson said.
"In drafting this ordinance, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations — for example, in their hiring of people whose lives are in harmony with their tenets, or when providing housing for their university students and others that preserve religious requirements," he said.
Tuesday night's statement was a rarity; church leaders or representatives seldom speak publicly on city ordinances or state legislation.
"I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree — in fact, especially when we disagree," said Otterson. "Our language will always be respectful and acknowledge those who differ, but (we) will also be clear on matters that we feel are of great consequence to our society."
Tammy Hinckley, a mother of two gay children, said she made the trip to Salt Lake City from Santaquin in south Utah County to witness the "historic event, when the church actually says this is fair and this is just."
LGBT advocates said LDS Church leaders had been willing to meet numerous times over the past several months and that those meetings had helped foster a mutual respect between the factions despite differences in ideologies.
"It's a great opportunity that the city has to bring together its divergent ideas and populations," said LGBT activist Jim Debakis. "It's a great moment, I think, in our city's history."
Said Capitol Hill resident Doug Wirthlin, "It's been a long time since I could actually say I stand shoulder to shoulder with my former church."
LGBT activist Jacob Whipple said he hopes church leaders will extend their support beyond the Salt Lake City Council chambers.
"We hope this is the beginning of a working relationship between the LDS Church and the LGBT community," Whipple said, "and they will help us by endorsing and sponsoring further laws both on the local, state and federal levels and all places where the church has influence."
In a lengthy public hearing Tuesday, more than 40 people offered opinions on the nondiscrimination ordinances, with supporters outnumbering foes more than 6 to 1.
"We cannot make decisions based on ignorance," Councilman JT Martin said prior to the vote. "All of us (on the council) raised our hands and swore that we would do what was right for those people we represent. This is an issue that touches everyone's life. Equality is the right thing."
The ordinances, which go into law following the 2010 legislative session, establish a process within the city for tenants and employees to file discrimination complaints based on sexual orientation.
A few residents shared with the council stories of evictions and firings based on their sexual orientation.
"It's hard living in a state you love … and still feel like you're a second-class citizen," said Eric Ethington, a Salt Lake man who said he was fired for being gay.
The ordinances call for written complaints and rebuttals to be filed with the city and reviewed by an administrator. If the complaint were found valid, the two parties would meet in an attempt to resolve the issue outside of court. If no agreement could be reached, the complaint would be forwarded to the city attorney for possible civil action.
The proposed ordinance calls for fines of $500 for smaller companies and up to $1,000 for larger organizations.
Sandra Rodrigues, of the anti-gay group America Forever, and a handful of others opposed the ordinances, saying the issue was about morality, not discrimination.
"You've tied the hands of every single citizen in this city," said Jessica Rodrigues. "Homosexuality is just as inappropriate as pornography and prostitution."
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