Utah Legislature: Gay rights legislation truce may be in trouble

Republicans question a proposed study on discrimination

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 3 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

A truce on gay rights legislation this session may be in trouble.

House and Senate Republicans were balking Tuesday at a compromise announced late last week on a controversial bill extending employment and housing anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians statewide.

The agreement called for no action to be taken on that or any other gay rights-related bills, including efforts to undo similar anti-discrimination ordinances recently passed by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County with the support of the LDS Church.

Instead, the issue of whether Utah's gays and lesbians face discrimination in housing and employment was to be sent to an interim committee for further study and possible recommendations for action by the 2011 Legislature.

It's the proposed study that apparently is causing majority lawmakers to question the truce — even though it's an election year for most of the Legislature and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told lawmakers it did not want to see the ordinances overturned.

"There was a general feeling of frustration," Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said after the truce was raised during the Senate GOP's closed-door caucus Tuesday afternoon.

The meeting ended without an agreement from senators on abiding by the truce. "We're still working on that," Jenkins said. "If that gets out from around us, you can tell we're not successful."

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said GOP leaders in the House and Senate discussed the truce in a joint meeting Tuesday morning. It did not come up during the House caucus.

"In the end, we thought it best that we do nothing. We don't take the side of going one direction," Clark said, of either passing a state law similar to Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination ordinances or holding off action on bills attempting to halt those protections.

"We really need some time to pass. Maybe we should study this," Clark said.

But he said an interim study should not be forced upon lawmakers, either.

Clark said if the Senate were to pass a bill outlawing the city and county ordinances, the House would consider it like any other bill.

So far, no such legislation has surfaced. But several lawmakers have so-called "protected" bill files open to draft legislation that likely would be affected by the truce.

Senate Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has been working on a resolution reaffirming the traditional family, as has Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

Niederhauser said he was willing to hold off on his resolution, even though he intended to "be careful not to come out in an offensive way against the gay and lesbian community."

He said he supported a "cooling off period" on gay rights-related legislation but did not see a need for the interim study.

"I'm not sure what kind of deal-killer that is on the truce," Niederhauser said. The study, he said, "could end up being what we avoided in the session, just a lot of controversy."

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, said he has a protected bill that would, in effect, disqualify the city and county ordinances.

Even before the truce was announced in a press conference Friday, Sandstrom said he had decided to hold his bill for the time being because of uncertainties with the issue and more pressing matters — not any agreement.

Still, Sandstrom said he and others are fairly certain that the city and county ordinances violate the state's "at-will" employee law. And, as a legal and policy issue, he said no local ordinances should violate state law, no matter what the cause.

"It is problematic in having local entities passing patchwork ordinances that violate state law — it seems there should be a statewide solution," Sandstrom said. "As far as I'm concerned, this has nothing to do with gay rights. It is a question of violating current law — and what, if anything, we do."

The truce is backed by Salt Lake Democrat Rep. Christine Johnson, the sponsor of the anti-discrimination bill, and Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson of Draper. Both said they had the support of majority leadership when they announced the deal Friday.

Neither Johnson, one of two openly gay Utah lawmakers, nor Stephenson returned calls Tuesday about the status of the truce.

Equality Utah reiterated its support for the truce.

"We're sticking to the agreement," said Equality Utah executive director Brandie Balken. "Equality Utah came to the table in good faith, in the assumption that it is in the entirety of Utah's best interest that these protections get passed statewide. An effective vehicle to do that would be this study. If that doesn't seem to be a vehicle everyone can agree on, then we can do the work we planned at the beginning of this session."

Balken said the compromise announced last week was "one of the first times we've managed to get some bipartisan support. That's something notable in and of itself."

Contributing: Aaron Falk

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