My view: Religious liberties and gay rights

By Clifford J. Rosky

Published: Thursday, March 1 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In the past few years, 14 cities and counties across Utah have adopted local nondiscrimination ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing. On Feb. 3, the Utah Legislature rejected a bill to incorporate these basic protections into our statewide employment and housing laws. This year marks the fourth time that the Legislature has rejected this bill — even though it is supported by more than two-thirds of Utahns, including our state's leading employers.

On Feb. 12, the Deseret News published an article headlined, "Colliding causes: gay rights and religious liberty." The article described cases in which businesses were sued and threatened with lawsuits because they refused to provide services for same-sex weddings, in violation of nondiscrimination laws in other states.

Nondiscrimination law is a complicated subject, so it would be easy to assume that these two stories are connected — that the proposed nondiscrimination bill poses a lurking threat to our religious liberties. It does not. The bill has nothing to do with same-sex marriage, or with forcing businesses to provide services to same-sex couples. It's about employment and housing. It's about making sure that all of the good, hard-working people in this state have an opportunity to earn a living and keep a roof over our heads. It's not about anything else.

Of course, it's easy to imagine similar scenarios in employment and housing: a religious organization or small business that doesn't want to hire gay and transgender workers or a homeowner who doesn't want to rent his basement apartment to gay and transgender tenants. It's important to understand, however, that the proposed bill would not apply in these situations because it includes broader exemptions than similar laws in other states.

For example, the nondiscrimination bill does not apply to businesses that are owned by religious organizations — like adoption agencies operated by religious charities, event halls rented by churches or even the Deseret News, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition, the bill does not apply to employers with fewer than 15 employees, so the vast majority of wedding photographers, wedding-cake makers and bed-and-breakfast owners would be exempt from it.

Similarly, the bill does not apply to landlords who rent fewer than four apartments, so a homeowner could refuse to rent out his basement apartment to whomever he wants. All of these exemptions are already recognized in Utah's employment and housing laws. None of them would be changed by the nondiscrimination bill.

It's time for our Legislature to put aside irrelevant concerns about same-sex marriage and pass basic employment and housing protections. The nondiscrimination bill is supported by an overwhelming majority of Utahns, and it's the right thing to do.

Clifford J. Rosky is associate professor of law at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law, where he teaches courses on criminal law, constitutional law and nondiscrimination law. He is a member of the board of directors of Equality Utah, an organization working to secure basic rights for gay and transgender Utahns.

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