Same-sex marriage debate could impact proposed Utah nondiscrimination bill
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The battle over same-sex marriage could change how a proposed statewide nondiscrimination law plays out in the Utah Legislature this year.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, has again drafted a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices. It cleared a Senate committee last year but wasn't debated on the floor.
Debate in the courts and the public forum over Utah's definition of marriage has changed the climate this year, though it's hard to know if there's a warming trend or a chill in the air.
"Obviously, it changes the dynamic somehow, but I don't know which way," said Urquhart, the sponsor of the SB100. "This isn't about marriage, never was."
Opponents of the proposal say nondiscrimination laws came first in every state that allows same-sex marriage.
But in Utah, that scenario has flipped. A federal judge's ruling last month legalized gay marriage for 17 days before the U.S. Supreme Court put on the brakes last week pending the state's appeal.
"We have just proven that is not the case," said Brandie Balken, executive director of Eqaulity Utah, which supports same-sex marriage and Urquhart's bill.
Laura Bunker, president of United Families Utah, said her group will continue to oppose the bill because she believes there is a connection between same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination laws.
"Together, they cover more bases and ways of impacting our religious freedoms," she said, adding it's possible that a Utah nondiscrimination law could factor into the court's decision over same-sex marriage.
Balken said the issues are separate, and she doesn't think the Legislature's consideration of the bill would have any impact on the federal court's decision.
But Bunker said Utah is in a unique situation and uncharted legal territory. "At this point, there are no rules to follow," she said.
United Families Utah is among 19 organizations that make up the First Freedoms Coalition, which was formed to fight the proposed nondiscrimination law. The groups, in general, advocate for traditional marriage and families and following constitutional principles.
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative political think tank that belongs to the coalition, is paying for a series of TV ads aimed at the bill. The 30-second spots say the proposed law would take away rights such as a private university having separate dorms for men and women or a baker for religious reasons refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.
"Nobody should have to choose between their convictions and their livelihood. This law would definitely set the stage for that," Bunker said.
Urquhart called the ads "irrelevant" because they mostly address public accommodations.
"If these people know how to read, they don't know how to tell the truth because that's not part of the bill," Urquhart said. "Who says the truth should get in the way of politics?"
The measure would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices. It would not prevent an employer from requiring workers to dress and groom or use restrooms, shower facilities, or dressing rooms that are consistent with the employee's gender identity.
College dormitories, religious organizations or businesses owned by religious organizations and small businesses would be exempt from the law.
Sutherland executive director Paul Mero said the TV ads are "exactly relevant" to Urquhart's proposal because it would give special rights to some people at the expense of others.
"His bill puts a bull's-eye on the back of nearly every landlord and employer in the state," Mero said. "His casual dismissal of critical arguments belies how unfair his bill really is."
Utah currently has a patchwork of nondiscrimination ordinances in 18 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 was silent on Urquhart's bill last year. Urquhart said he has had "a few conversations" with the church and that many of his fellow lawmakers are waiting to see if it endorses the measure this year.
While the state fights over same-sex marriage, Utahns could find common ground in stopping discrimination in housing and the workplace, he said.
The First Freedoms Coalition, which set up a website called FairToAll.org, intends to counter support of an anti-discrimination law at three public meetings next week in St. George, Lehi and Logan.
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