SALT LAKE CITY — Television ads opposing a proposed statewide nondiscrimination law in Utah are scheduled to hit the airwaves Sunday, the first volley in what promises to be passionate debate over the issue.
More than a dozen organizations calling themselves the First Freedoms Coalition are mounting a multimedia campaign to rally support against a bill Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, intends to run when the Legislature meets in January. The groups, in general, advocate for traditional marriage and families and following constitutional principles.
"I think Utahns are very hospitable. In a lot of ways we bend over backwards to be kind and accepting and caring of everyone, so for that reason, a lot of Utahns think a nondiscrimination law would be a good idea," said Laura Bunker, president of United Families International.
"Even though nondiscrimination laws sound reasonable, they're not. They give special rights to some at the expense of others, and they'll harm our first freedoms," Bunker said.
In addition to United Families, the Sutherland Institute and Utah Eagle Forum are among the groups in the coalition, which wrote principles it believes should guide the debate. The "First Freedoms Compact" includes tolerance, fairness, mutual respect and working toward the common good.
The coalition set up a website, fairtoall.org, and plans to hold events in Lehi, Logan and St. George.
Bunker described the First Freedoms Coalition as a grass-roots organization. It is not registered as a political action or political issues committee. It's a loose coalition, and money for the ad campaign comes from private individuals who care about the issue, said Bill Duncan, a lawyer with Utah's Marriage Law Foundation.
"This was news to us," Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, said after being told about the ad campaign.
Balken said she's pleased to see the groups want to start a discussion and that Equality Utah even supports the ideals in First Freedoms' compact. But the solution is to pass a nondiscrimination law.
“The majority of Utahns support nondiscrimination ordinances," she said. "To them, ‘Fair to All’ means allowing all Utahns, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, sexual orientation or gender identity, to support themselves and their families and to live in safe housing."
A Senate committee narrowly gave Urquhart's bill a favorable recommendation during the Legislature's 2013 session, but it died on the Senate floor without a vote.
The measure is aimed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment practices. In addition, it addressed workplace dress and grooming standards and shared restroom facilities. The law would not have applied to small businesses, college dormitories, religious organizations or businesses owned by religious organizations.
Urquhart is having a new bill drafted for the 2014 Legislature. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Duncan said providing protections for a person's sexual orientation or gender identity would be a "significant shift from anything we've done in Utah in the past." And, he said, it opens the door to same-sex marriage.
"In every state that has same-sex marriage, a sexual orientation law came first," he said. "In states where courts have required same-sex marriage like Massachusetts and Iowa and the others, they’ve all pointed to the existence of these laws as one of the pieces in the puzzle that makes them decide."
A gay couple and two lesbian couples sued Utah over its voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby is expected to make a ruling in the case as early as next month.
Urquhart last year said his bill wasn't about marriage or special rights. "It's about equal rights," he said.
"This is purely about employment and housing," Balken said, adding there's nothing in state law that keeps people from having or living their deeply held beliefs.
Balken said it seems that courts across the country are deciding the marriage question and that it will likely find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Nothing that happens in this bill is going to make a decision with regard to marriage in Utah," she said. "But today, we as Utahns have an opportunity to build on a common sense solution to address a current problem."
The First Freedoms Coalition's three 30-second TV spots say nondiscrimination laws take away rights to freedom of speech and religion.
One ad clearly refers to BYU's arrangement with apartment owners for off-campus student housing, though it does not name the university.
"Imagine you are a landlord renting to private university students in accordance with that university’s honor code, and a young man decides he wants to live in women’s housing. Those special rights would trump your rights as a landlord and, ultimately, the honor code. How fair is that?" according to script of the ad.
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.
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