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Marriage, nondiscrimination bills likely on hold this year, GOP leaders say

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28 2014 4:20 p.m. MST

Republican leaders say there's a Republican leaders say there's a "strong possibility" the Utah Legislature will put on hold bills related to marriage and nondiscrimination laws this year. (Shutterstock)

SALT LAKE CITY — Bills related to marriage and nondiscrimination laws appear headed for the shelf this year at the Utah Legislature.

Majority Republican leaders in the Senate and House said they don't want to consider any legislation that could hurt the appeal of a federal court ruling that struck down the state's voter-approved constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the Utah Attorney General's Office has talked to GOP leaders about proposed legislation.

"The attorney general's office is not directing this, but has said there might be some things we should avoid or do in this process that will help create a more fair adjudication of our appeal," he said.

Niederhauser said after speaking with Republican leaders in the House on Tuesday, that there's a "strong possibility" that marriage-related bills would be put on hold.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, agreed that it might be best for lawmakers not to deal with issues related to Amendment 3 this session.

"I think you'll find a lot of agreement in terms of where we go from here and the strategy," Lockhart said. "I would say we're leaning toward standing pat, if you will, letting the courts handle it."

The speaker said that would include religious freedom and antidiscrimination legislation.

Lockhart said she already has talked to a couple of House members who hoped to carry bills related to the case and told them she wants to see "the right thing" done for the Legislature and the state.

House Republicans are scheduled to talk about religious liberty and nondiscrimination bills in a caucus meeting Thursday.

Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, has proposed a law and a resolution for a constitutional amendment that would exempt clergy from having to marry gay couples if that goes against their religious teachings. But neither HJR1 nor HB231 may be debated this year.

"If I'm reading the tea leaves correctly, we're likely not going to do anything on them, all of them, including nondiscrimination," Anderegg said. "My gut feeling is that leadership, along with the (attorney general's) office is worried about fueling the fire going into the defense on Amendment 3. They don't want to add any enmity."

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said his bill for a statewide nondiscrimination law has nothing to do with marriage. It would prohibit discrimination in the workplace and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, said he doesn't know if there is a conflict with the court case and the anti-bias measure going forward.

"It may be more a matter of rhetoric," Okerlund said, adding it hasn't been decided whether SB100 will be heard this year. "I really believe that the rhetoric that goes along with the discussion of that bill may affect what happens in the courts, and we want to make sure that isn't the case."

Niederhauser added that the proposal "brings up the question of freedom of religion, so that's the conflict."

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, has drafted three bills that he said would protect individual religious conscience rights, require religious freedom instruction in public schools, and establish an alternative nondiscrimination law. Only SB151 requiring schools to teach about religious freedom has come out.

Also Tuesday, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, unveiled a bill to create a marriage defense fund. HB78 would allow people to contribute to the fund on their state income tax return starting this year.

Laura Bunker, president of United Families International, said she sees the wisdom in putting the bills on hold pending the outcome of the court case. Her group supports those seen as protecting religious liberties but opposes the statewide nondiscrimination measure.

"The first priority is defending our marriage amendment," Bunker said. "We don't want to muddy the waters."

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

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