Nondiscrimination bill gets a hearing but tabled by Senate committee

Published: Friday, Feb. 3 2012 7:03 p.m. MST

Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, speaks during a committee meeting concerning SB51 which was sponsored by Sen. McAdams, at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 3, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A legislative committee tabled a bill Friday that would prohibit discrimination in employment and housing statewide because of a person's sexual orientation, gender identity or political views.

Meeting in a standing-room only committee room in the state Capitol, the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee, voted 4-2 to table SB51.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, said he was "disappointed" in the committee's action but said progress was made in the respect that this was the first year the bill had received a committee hearing. McAdams had introduced nondiscrimination legislation in four previous legislative sessions.

The hearing gave committee members an opportunity to learn more about discrimination and the law and gave McAdams the chance to better understand their concerns, he said.

"I thought it was very significant that even those who voted against the bill spoke up for the fact that discrimination is wrong," he said.

McAdams, who is running for Salt Lake County mayor this year, said he would not attempt to revive the bill that was intended to protect gay, lesbian and transgender people — on a statewide basis — from losing housing or jobs. The bill would provide like protections for people who participate in political activities and enable them to file complaints with the state Labor Commission.

McAdams noted that 14 cities and counties have passed local nondiscrimination ordinances. The Salt Lake Chamber, which represents businesses statewide, endorsed the statewide approach over a patchwork of ordinances often confusing to businesses seeking to expand in Utah.

The bill was also supported by The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, said Jean Hill, its government liaison.

The diocese supported SB51 because "we recognize all people have inherent value as human beings and a right to live a life of dignity."

Said Hill, "We urge you to pass this bill if for no other reason, it's the right thing to do."

But others said while the measure might provide protections to gays, lesbians and transgendered people or those who are politically active, it would compromise their standards and beliefs of others.

Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Provo, said if she ran a "patriotic bookstore," should she have to hire or retain a worker who burned flags on the weekends or someone who was a member of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church and picketed funerals of service members?

Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum said she appreciated that the bill carved out exemptions for religious institutions, "I also think religious people should have that same opportunity as religious institutions" in employment and housing decisions.

Ruzicka said she was concerned that the legislation would apply statewide. "When it comes to my community, I decide what I want to happen. It will be a community standard," she said.

Jeremy Cunningham, who described himself as a father, business owner and gay man who has lived in Utah for 20 years, said gay, lesbian and transgendered people need the same protections as other Utahns.

Cunningham said he was terminated from his job after a colleague saw him at lunch with a man known to be gay and asked him about his sexual orientation.

"I was taken aback by the inappropriate questions about my orientation. It had nothing to do with my ability to perform my job duties," he said.

"When I was fired after my colleague asked me about being gay, I felt dehumanized," Cunningham said. "I found out it was perfectly legal. I had no grounds (to fight the dismissal). It's a right-to-work state."

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, said it was important to remember that certain groups of people encounter discrimination.

If not for laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, age or ethnicity, Robles said, she, as a Latina immigrant woman likely would have not been elected to office at age 29.

"I probably wouldn’t be here," she said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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