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Proposed non-discrimination law won't be heard on Senate floor

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 12:20 p.m. MDT

A proposed statewide non-discrimination law likely won't be debated on the Senate floor before the gavel comes down on the Utah Legislature late Thursday night.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed statewide non-discrimination law ran into expected opposition in the state Senate and won't be debated before the gavel comes down on the Utah Legislature on Thursday night.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart said he had "great conversations" with his colleagues about the bill but they are "just wondering if they can bring themselves to vote for it."

In the end, the St. George Republican said he doesn't have the votes to pass SB262 this year.

"I worked the members (of the Senate). I did not do it with a tick sheet to see the exact numbers, but we have a ways to go," he said.

Urquhart said he intends to bring the bill back next year.

"Bells on our toes, we'll be back," said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who helped Urquhart lobby the overwhelmingly Republican Senate.

Meantime, Mormons for Equality, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group with a presence in Utah, is organizing a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday evening in support of the proposed law. According to a Facebook page, they will pray, sing LDS hymns, hear from speakers and carry signs.

"Those attending the rally will demonstrate to the Utah Legislature that the bill does enjoy widespread support among faithful Mormons, even though the church has chosen to withhold its official endorsement," according to a news release.

SB262 would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices. In addition, it would address workplace dress and grooming standards and shared restroom facilities. The law would not apply to small businesses, college dormitories, religious organizations or businesses owned by religious organizations.

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

Proponents of the proposed law celebrated the vote as a historic moment in Utah. The bill has advanced further than similar measures proposed the past five years.

"This is not the end. We have not been pushed back. We will continue to move forward, said Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, the state's largest LGBT rights group.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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."

Dabakis, the Legislature's only openly gay member, said he and Equality Utah have had "warm and cordial" meetings with the LDS Church about a statewide non-discrimination law for more than a year.

"We came close," he said. "We just couldn't quite get there."

Urquhart said he hasn't talked to the LDS Church about his bill. In 2009, the church supported Salt Lake City's non-discrimination ordinance, the first of now 17 such laws approved in various communities in Utah.

"It would be important to have them. It would be important to have all faiths, all different organizations to come on board," he said.

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, cited moral grounds as his reason for being against the measure.

"Someone is going to have to demonstrate to me in a satisfactory way that homosexual activity is not immoral," he said during last week's committee hearing, "because as long as I feel that way, I cannot advance policy that frankly encourages the societal acceptance of something I believe is immoral."

Urquhart responded by saying Reid clearly and articulately expressed the opposition to the bill. He said many of his Senate colleagues told him it would create special rights for a particular group of people.

"My job is to convince them over the next year that this is not about special rights. It's about equal rights," Urquhart said.

Laura Bunker, United Families Utah chapter president, said her concerns over the bill  won't change. Same-sex marriage in four states, she said, came about after non-discrimination laws in housing and employment were enacted.

"They use those kinds of laws as a basis to legally recognize same-sex marriage, so we don't want to open that door," she said.

Urquhart said he has found societal attitudes about the anti-discrimination laws interesting.

"It's interesting how those attitudes break along generational lines," he said. "Whether we get it through this year or next, it's something that will continue to gain ground and continue to bring people to the idea that people shouldn't be discriminated against for their gender identity or sexual orientation."

E-mail: romboy@deseretnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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