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A Utah first: Senate committee endorses statewide non-discrimination law

Published: Thursday, March 7 2013 7:55 p.m. MST

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the Utah Legislature's only openly gay member.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Backers of a proposed statewide anti-discrimination law celebrated victory in a Senate committee Thursday. But opponents of the bill say their glee will be short-lived.

After an emotional and congenial hearing, a Utah legislative committee for the first time voted to advance a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment.

"This is a historic day. This has never happened before," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the Utah Legislature's only openly gay member. "This happened with Republicans and Democrats. It's a wonderful day for non-discrimination and fair Utahns everywhere."

Utah Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka said SB262 will die when it reaches the full Senate.

"If they want to call it a victory, that's fine," she said. "It has to become law for you to win. This one is not going to become law."

In addition to outlawing discrimination in employment and housing practices, the bill addresses workplace dress and grooming standards and shared restroom facilities. It would not apply to small businesses, college dormitories or religious organizations.

The Senate Economic Development and Workforces Services Committee voted 4-3 to advance the measure to the Senate floor, with two Republicans and two Democrats voting in favor.

Bill sponsor Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, who described himself as "pretty freaked out" after the favorable committee vote, knows the bill is a tough sell among his colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"I'm not confident this will make it past the Senate floor, but I'm sure going to work for that result," Urquhart said. "I'm going to keep bringing it back until we pass it."

Similar proposals by Democrats in the past five years haven't gone anywhere.

Utah currently has a patchwork of non-discrimination ordinances in 17 cities and counties. Salt Lake City approved the first one in 2009, with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The church issued a statement Thursday saying it has not taken a position on SB262.

"The church is on the record supporting non-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian citizens related to housing and employment," said LDS Church spokesman Michael Purdy. "We also believe that any legislation should protect these rights while also preserving the rights of religious conscience — to act in accordance with deeply held religious beliefs — for individuals and organizations."

Cache Valley resident Doree Burt brought her "Mormon mommy" perspective to the hearing. She said amid tears that her religion teaches the Golden Rule, and passing the proposed law would put that principle into action.

"Please support families by not taking away places for their children to work and live," Burt told the committee.

Laura Bunker, director of United Families Utah, warned senators that a non-discrimination law would establish grounds for the courts to legalize gay marriage as they have in other states. She asked the committee to not take action on the bill.

"This bill does not deal with marriage," Urquhart said, reiterating it only deals with discrimination in housing and employment.

Utah, he said, needs a uniform law rather than different ones in various communities.

Opponents of proposed law argued that it would grant gay, lesbian and transgender people rights that aren't afforded all Utahns.

"It penalizes everyone. This isn't a gay rights (bill). It is a special rights bill," said Paul Mero, executive director of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank in Salt Lake City.

Mero said the bill asks lawmakers to legislate what people think, not what they do.

Urquhart disagreed, saying it's not about thoughts but it's about action against discrimination.

Mike Weinholtz, CEO of Utah-based CHG Healthcare Services, said it's "elementary" to have a non-discrimination law. Without it, he said, businesses won't be able to recruit top people or expand.

A statewide law would end confusion over the various ordinances across the state and "announce to the world that Utah's not only open for business but we're open to everyone," Weinholtz said.

E-mail: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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