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Protections for gays face tough fight at Utah Legislature

Published: Saturday, Aug. 29 2015 11:30 a.m. MDT

Now that Salt Lake City has approved ordinances that make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay, will the Legislature and Gov. Gary Herbert follow suit?

Government and civic leaders said Wednesday the fight will be much tougher in the conservative Legislature, though the odds of passing an anti-discrimination law may get a boost from the Mormon church's endorsement Tuesday of the Salt Lake City Council's ordinances. Lawmakers could do three things when they come into January's general session: They could adopt a statewide law similar to the city's; they could actually repeal the city ordinance and ban all other local governments from doing likewise; or they could do nothing, which would let the city ordinance stand.

Rep. Chris Johnson, D-Salt Lake, said Wednesday she will again introduce a bill that is "very similar" to the city's new ordinance. Whether it will pass or not is certainly debatable, said Johnson, one of three openly gay Utah legislators.

House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, said he's not sure what the reaction would be to such legislation.

But, he pointed out, "the position the LDS Church takes does have a tremendous sway on public sentiment. And public sentiment does have a tremendous sway on the Legislature."

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he expects the issue to come up next session.

"I don't know where it will go," he said. "It depends on whether they try to plow new ground with it." Waddoups said he would be willing to support legislation protecting employment and housing rights for gay Utahns if current statutes are unclear.

However, Waddoups, a property manager, said he wants the "right to protect the image of my company" against gay employees "out flaunting the gay lifestyle" during work hours. He said he also had concerns about similar behavior among his tenants. "I'm not going to put up with that on any of my properties," Waddoups said.

Angie Welling, the governor's spokeswoman, said, "As a strong proponent of local government, Herbert respects the right of municipalities to pass rules and ordinances in their jurisdictions. As such, the governor defers to Salt Lake City in this case."

Regarding possible statewide legislation, Welling said it would be premature for Herbert to discuss undrafted legislation.

A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also said it's too early to comment on bills that haven't been proffered.

"The church statement (Tuesday) night addressed the employment and housing ordinances in Salt Lake City and that statement speaks for itself," Scott Trotter said. "As to any other legislation, the church would reserve judgment. We are not prepared to speculate on something we haven't seen."

Church public affairs director Michael Otterson told the Associated Press the church had supported "basic civil values," but the church's position found some critics on both sides even as it preserved its religious belief that same-sex marriage poses a threat to traditional marriage.

"There are going to be gay advocates who don't think we've gone nearly far enough, and people very conservative who think we've gone too far," Otterson said. "The vast majority of people are between those polar extremes and we think that's going to resonate with people on the basis of fair-mindedness."

During the last legislative session, a suite of legislative anti-discrimination proposals known as the Common Ground Initiative failed after they were strongly opposed by conservative groups, including the Sutherland Institute, a Salt Lake think tank. The six bills sought to level the playing field for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender Utahns in the areas of hospitalization/medical care, wrongful death benefits, housing/employment and adoption rights. Sutherland argued the bills would undermine the tenet of "traditional marriage" between a man and a woman, and launched a push-back campaign it called the Sacred Ground Initiative.

Sutherland issued a statement Tuesday night expressing disappointment in the council's vote and the LDS Church's stance.

"As a public relations opportunity, the LDS Church's statement before the Salt Lake City Council may assuage the minds and soften the hearts of 'gay rights' in Utah," the Sutherland statement read. "As a policy statement, it is problematic."

"The approved ordinances before the Salt Lake City Council are unsound in principle, clarity and effect."

Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake, who was among legislators who sponsored Common Ground Initiative bills last year and another of the Legislature's openly gay members, lauded the council's decision, and the church's support.

"This appears to be an olive branch being offered by the LDS Church," Biskupski said. "It's a very positive move and one I am extremely thankful for. This is the kind of messaging our community, and the entire state of Utah, really needs."

Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said earlier this year that if Salt Lake City took the actions it did Tuesday night, he would sponsor legislation to overturn it. But Wednesday, Wimmer said while he still supports such legislation and believes the Legislature should pass such a prohibition, he won't sponsor it. He is too busy with states' rights laws, he said. He believes others will introduce a bill to prohibit statewide what Salt Lake City did.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah chapter of Eagle Forum, a pro-traditional family organization, also believes the Legislature, dominated by conservative Republicans, won't pass any "pro-gay and lesbian" anti-discrimination laws.

"We knew that the city was going to do this," Ruzicka said. "We knew that the LDS Church, appropriately, would not oppose it because religions were carved out of the law. It does not affect the church, or any religious organization. But it certainly affects all the rest of Utahns who were not carved out based on our beliefs. We also have the right to be carved out, otherwise we become the victims of it."

Both Wimmer and Ruzicka said the city's new ordinance violates employers' and property owners' rights, specifically the right to own and manage private property.

"The housing the LDS Church owns around Brigham Young University would not have to rent to a couple living the homosexual lifestyle," Ruzicka said.

"But I as a private property owner would, even if I disapproved of that lifestyle," said Ruzicka. "I call that discrimination" against the property owner.

A bookstore owned by a religion would not have to hire a gay person, but a private bookstore, even it sold mainly religious books, would, she added.

Johnson said her bill and the Salt Lake City law make exemptions for small businesses and property owners.

Wimmer and Ruzicka and other opponents to equal rights are "entitled to (their) perspectives," Johnson said. Gay, lesbian and transgender people "live all over this state, in all the cities and towns," and they deserve equal protection under the law, not just those who live in Salt Lake City, she said.

House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake, said he hopes the dialogue between the LDS Church and the gay community continues.

"I don't know if that's fair to anyone, particularly the LDS Church, to speculate on what (Tuesday) night might mean," he said. "I would hope this is just a beginning."

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