Protections for gays face tough fight at Utah Legislature

Published: Thursday, Nov. 12 2009 7:11 a.m. MST

Now that Salt Lake City has approved ordinances that make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay, will the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert follow suit?

Government and civic leaders said Wednesday the fight will be much tougher in the conservative Legislature, though the odds of passing an anti-discrimination law may get a boost from the Mormon church's endorsement Tuesday of the Salt Lake City Council's ordinances. Lawmakers could do three things when they come into January's general session: They could adopt a statewide law similar to the city's; they could actually repeal the city ordinance and ban all other local governments from doing likewise; or they could do nothing, which would let the city ordinance stand.

Rep. Chris Johnson, D-Salt Lake, said Wednesday she will again introduce a bill that is "very similar" to the city's new ordinance. Whether it will pass or not is certainly debatable, said Johnson, one of three openly gay Utah legislators.

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he's not sure what the reaction would be to such legislation.

But, he pointed out, "the position the LDS Church takes does have a tremendous sway on public sentiment. And public sentiment does have a tremendous sway on the Legislature."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he expects the issue to come up next session.

"I don't know where it will go," he said. "It depends on whether they try to plow new ground with it." Waddoups said he would be willing to support legislation protecting employment and housing rights for gay Utahns if current statutes are unclear.

However, Waddoups, a property manager, said he wants the "right to protect the image of my company" against gay employees "out flaunting the gay lifestyle" during work hours. He said he also had concerns about similar behavior among his tenants. "I'm not going to put up with that on any of my properties," Waddoups said.

Angie Welling, the governor's spokeswoman, said, "As a strong proponent of local government, Herbert respects the right of municipalities to pass rules and ordinances in their jurisdictions. As such, the governor defers to Salt Lake City in this case."

Regarding possible statewide legislation, Welling said it would be premature for Herbert to discuss undrafted legislation.

A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also said it's too early to comment on bills that haven't been proffered.

"The church statement (Tuesday) night addressed the employment and housing ordinances in Salt Lake City and that statement speaks for itself," Scott Trotter said. "As to any other legislation, the church would reserve judgment. We are not prepared to speculate on something we haven't seen."

Church public affairs director Michael Otterson told the Associated Press the church had supported "basic civil values," but the church's position found some critics on both sides even as it preserved its religious belief that same-sex marriage poses a threat to traditional marriage.

"There are going to be gay advocates who don't think we've gone nearly far enough, and people very conservative who think we've gone too far," Otterson said. "The vast majority of people are between those polar extremes and we think that's going to resonate with people on the basis of fair-mindedness."

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