Utah senator introduces statewide anti-discrimination bill

Published: Wednesday, March 6 2013 3:55 p.m. MST

Spectators watch from the gallery on the Senate chambers on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 in the Utah State Capitol.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator introduced a bill Wednesday that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment in Utah.

"I think this is one of the big issues of our time," said Sen. Stephen Urquhart. "I'm going to push for passage. I'd like to see this turn into law. That's why I'm running it."

The St. George Republican conceded, though, that it might take a few years. Proposed nondiscrimination laws sponsored by Democrats have failed to gain any traction in the Legislature for the past five years.

"I know that this piece of legislation has controversy attached to it," Urquhart said.

The Senate Workforce Services and Economic Development Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on SB262 at 4 p.m. Thursday.

Salt Lake City passed Utah's first nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009 with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since then, at least 14 other cities and counties have adopted similar policies.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes the Legislature should continue to see what happens in communities before taking any action.

"I think there comes a point when we really need to seriously address it at the state, but I don't think it's reached that threshold yet," Niederhauser said.

Gov. Gary Herbert also prefers to see local governments deal with anti-discrimination issues.

"I don't think there should be discrimination in employment or housing or medical issues based on any kind of sexual orientation," the governor said Tuesday at his weekly press availability. "The question is then, do we need laws to ensure that that takes place?"

Herbert said the problem is that those laws may violate other people's rights.

"That's part of the tussle in trying to find out the right thing to do," he said, noting he is aware of attempts to craft legislation that "everybody can embrace." Without such agreement, Herbert said he prefers the issue remain in the hands of local government.

"I think that's been a good way to do this, and I think it's, right now as far as I can see, the best way to do that," he said. "If somebody can show me something that's better than that, I'm willing to listen and learn and take into consideration that. Maybe Sen. Urquhart's bill will do that."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said the chances of Urquhart's bill passing "are slim at this point in the session just because of the process," noting the final day for committee hearings is Thursday for both the House and the Senate.

Lockhart said she wants to wait longer before looking at a state anti-discrimination law, to see how the local ordinances already in place are working.

"As with any policy, you kind of have to wait a few years and see what's out there," the speaker said.

Last year, several prominent Utah businesses, including Ancestry.com, eBay and 1-800-CONTACTS, came out in support of a statewide non-discrimination law, saying it would change how the state is viewed and help businesses attract the best people as well as grow and expand.

Noting a patchwork of non-discrimination ordinances currently in the state, the Salt Lake Chamber also favors a statewide law modeled after ones adopted in Salt Lake City and the other communities.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy

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