In America and in Utah, society does best when issues are openly debated and discussed, not shoved under the rug. I understand the frustration of the protesters and of so many Utahns. —Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City
SALT LAKE CITY — More than a dozen gay rights protesters seeking a hearing for an anti-discrimination bill were handcuffed and taken into custody by Utah Highway Patrol troopers Monday for blocking access to a legislative committee hearing.
Before the troopers took action shortly after 2 p.m., the protesters were told they were committing a potential felony and a class B misdemeanor by interfering with the hearing scheduled in the Senate Building on the Capitol grounds.
"We're just trying to do the business of the Legislature. We can't prevent that. We have responsiblity to the people to make sure we're doing its business," said Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who was trying to get into the Senate Education Committee hearing.
"Liberty and justice for all," the organizer of the protest, Troy Williams, an activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, called out to reporters as he was led away in plastic handcuffs.
The 13 protesters were arrested for investigation of disorderly conduct, a class B misdemeanor, and taken to the Salt Lake County Jail for booking, said Dwayne Baird, Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman.
The protesters gathered outside the committee room in the hopes of seeing Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, to seek a hearing for SB100, a bill barring housing and employment discrimination against the LGBT community.
Niederhauser did not attend the committee meeting, although others did, including several people who had come to testify and were frustrated the doors were blocked.
"They're denying my right to go in a committee meeting," said Alexandra Eframo. "I don't care what they stand for or whatever. I hope they put them in jail for 100 days. With this exhibition, I am so against it. Discriminate all you want."
The protesters arrived at the Capitol about 9:30 a.m. and locked arms in front of the doors to the governor's office for about four hours, despite being asked to leave by troopers, closing the governor's reception area to tours.
Several troopers who provide security at the Capitol kept protesters from completely blocking the door but did not immediately make any arrests. One trooper stood by with plastic zip-tie handcuffs.
Williams said the protesters were prepared to block the door, which the governor's office locked from the inside, until they got an "absolute commitment" that the bill would be heard or they were arrested.
“We are just so frustrated,” he said.
Troopers escorted Williams and Michael Westley away from the door to talk with them before letting them return. They both repeatedly asked the officers if they intended to arrest them.
"Your job is not to block that door," trooper Travis Trotta told Westley.
"My job is to get this bill heard," Westley replied.
The governor's communications director, Marty Carpenter, suggested the protesters may be in the wrong place.
“We appreciate citizens voicing their opinion on legislation. Because SB100 remains in the Senate, we encourage those concerned with the status of the bill to contact their legislators,” Carpenter said in a statement.
Senate Republicans have taken a position against hearing the bill because they say it could hurt Utah's appeal in the gay marriage case with the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Using concerns of animus in the defense of Amendment 3 is a convenient excuse not to hear this bill," the protesters wrote in a letter to Niederhauser and Gov. Gary Herbert. "Further, we contend that not hearing SB100 is itself an act of animus against the LGBT community."
Niederhauser told reporters the Senate hasn’t changed its position on hearing the anti-discrimination bill.
"I think it highlights that we have this freedom, and we respect it completely as a Senate. That’s the way we make policy here. We hear from the constituents, and so I support their right to freedom of speech,” Niederhauser said.
He said the bill could be pulled out of the Rules Committee if it gets enough votes, but that the Senate still wants to wait for the same-sex marriage case to make its way through the courts.
"It’s an environment that we just don’t understand or won’t know until that happens," Niederhauser said, "and it’s best, we feel so far, that those be delayed until we understand that environment a lot better.”
Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said lawmakers "don’t know what the court is going to rule, so anything we do is going to be subject to that federal court action, and it’s pretty hard to legislate when you don’t know the outcome of what you're legislating to.”
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, the sponsor of SB100, left the Senate floor to talk with the group, offering to bring up the issue in the GOP Senate caucus meeting Tuesday and to set up a town hall meeting next week.
Later, Urquhart said Niederhauser had offered to meet with a handful of the protesters in his office. The protesters asked that the meeting be held in the open and suggested Niederhauser come to them.
None of the offers were accepted.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, told reporters that "at this point, the Legislature, the Senate and the House have made our position on that subject, as well as all the religious liberty legislation, very clear."
The speaker said any protests or people gathering at the Capitol is "fantastic."
"This is why we have a Capitol. This is why we have a big lawn. This is why we have open space in the rotunda so that people can come here. This is the people’s house. We encourage people to come here and have their voices heard," Lockhart said.
The demonstrators, who numbered as many as 17, had said they wouldn't budge Monday without a commitment to hear the bill.
"We're not going to leave, and we're not going to be quiet," said Donna Weinholtz, of Salt Lake City. "This is a tactic to make us go away."
Williams said the group includes gay and straight people, Mormons and non-Mormons.
Demonstrators wore signs reading: "End the animus — SB100" and "We are the 72 percent."
The latter refers to a Deseret News/KSL poll last month that showed 72 percent of Utahns favor a statewide nondiscrimination law.
At one point, the group blocked a man who apparently had an appointment at the governor's office from going through the door. They told him what they were doing and that the door was locked, but he didn't believe them and pushed Williams.
"So you want to make a fool out of yourself," said the man who refused to give his name. "Is this America at it's best?" he asked before walking away.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay Utah legislator, said protesting for one's values is a long-held American tradition.
“In America and in Utah, society does best when issues are openly debated and discussed, not shoved under the rug. I understand the frustration of the protesters and of so many Utahns," Dabakis said.
Weinholtz, who called herself “a straight, married ally of the LGBT community,” said she was willing to be arrested because “we’re talking about civil rights, and civil rights belong to all of us.”
She added: “Unless everyone has full equality in this country, no one can truly claim they have full equality and freedom.”
Weinholtz said she has never been arrested in her life.
“But I’m willing today for it to be the first time,” she said.
Gail Turpin, of Cottonwood Heights, who also called herself a “straight ally,” said it was important to her to be a strong supporter of civil rights for the LGBT community just as she has been in the past for African-Americans and women's rights.
“This is the same thing,” Turpin said.
Jennifer Morrison said she was at the protest as a member of the LDS Church, “because one of the principles of my gospel is to help others and support those who need support. People need to be protected, not just some people.”
Contributing: Madeleine Brown
Email: [email protected]