A proposed anti-discrimination law that would protect people who are LGBT from employment and housing discrimination and preserve religious freedom is making headlines and drawing praise — and some criticism — as model legislation for other states to follow.
Utah's Senate Business and Labor Committee on Thursday unanimously advanced SB296 to the Senate floor, a day after LGBT activists, leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a bipartisan group of legislators held a joint press conference at the state Capitol to unveil the compromise bill.
"The bill proposes to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah's anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment, and clarify exemptions for religious institutions and provide protections for religious expression," the Deseret News reported.
Jonathan Rauch described for Brookings Institution the bill as a compromise that "breaks new ground" by protecting both LGBT and religious members of the community from discrimination.
"The bill also contains what appears to be a real innovation: it protects employees from discrimination based on non-harassing, non-job-related speech about marriage, family, sexuality, and other such issues," he wrote. "This appears to be addressed to the waitress or cop fired, or targeted by activists for firing, because of off-workplace speech for or against, say, gay marriage or California’s Proposition 8. A version of this idea was included in a proposed LGBT anti-discrimination bill that died in the Utah legislature three years ago. If it becomes law in Utah, it could become a national template."
Brookings has announced plans for a Web-broadcast panel discussion of "gay rights, religious exemptions, and the Mormon proposal" on March 16.
SB296 would prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Landlords and property owners also would be banned from discriminating against LGBT people.
Protections in the bill for employment and housing do not create a special or protected class for other purposes, according to the Deseret News.
Everyone would be afforded the same free-speech protections in their private lives and could not be fired for their religious, personal or political beliefs about marriage, family and sexuality.
The bills seeks to protect churches and their affiliates, religious schools, small or family-owned businesses, and specifically the Boy Scouts of America. It would not prohibit employers from setting "reasonable" dress and grooming standards and designating sex-specific bathrooms or showers.
According to ABC News, "the biggest membership support for the Boy Scouts of America comes from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 2013, 437,000 Mormon youth participated in the Boy Scouts — more than any other religious or civic group."
Individuals and for-profit businesses do not receive religious exemptions under the bill and the bill is limited to housing and employment.
"If Utah can get this balance between religious liberty and gay rights right, I really think it will be the pivotal moment for the country," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a University of Illinois law professor who helped draft the bill.
According to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, there are roughly 55,000 LGBT Utahns. The institute noted that in a 2010 survey, 43 percent of respondents who were lesbian, gay or bisexual said they'd been discriminated against in employment and other aspects of their lives. The number for transgender individuals who'd experienced discrimination was 67 percent. "Even higher percentages of employees reported experiencing verbal harassment at work on at least a weekly basis," the institute said.
“In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others,” the LDS Church said in a statement. “While none of the parties achieved all they wanted, we do at least now have an opportunity to lessen the divisiveness in our communities without compromising on key principles.”
The Human Rights Campaign, which had been critical of the LDS Church when it held a news conference in January calling on lawmakers to balance the needs of LGBT citizens and religious freedom, embraces this proposal. Its website posted a statement from HRC President Chad Griffin: “This is an extraordinary moment for the state of Utah, for LGBT Americans, and for the Mormon church, which, by supporting this legislation, shows a willingness to align with others on the right side of history. The desire exhibited by the Mormon church to work toward common ground should serve as a model for other faith traditions here in the United States.”
A number of other groups, including the Utah ACLU, also chimed in with support for the measure. "“Everyone deserves to be free from discrimination in their workplace and in their homes,” said Marina Lowe, Legislative and Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Utah. “We strongly urge our legislators to adopt this legislation.”
The proposal was not met with unanimous praise, however.
A Washington Post article said that "the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s largest faith denominations — have opposed the federal Employee Non-Discrimination Act, and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore in January called the Mormon church 'well-intentioned but naïve.' It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday how groups concerned about the place of religious traditionalists would react. The Becket Fund, a leading religious liberties law firm, declined comment."
The Family Research Council issued a statement from its president, Tony Perkins, asking the LDS Church to rethink its position on the proposal.
"The legislation as it was unveiled (Wednesday) is based on a fundamental misconception that religious liberty can co-exist with unrestrained sexual liberty. As President Obama's choice for the EEOC Chai Feldblum said, 'Gays win; Christians lose,'" Perkins said. "As we've seen time and time again, something has to give under these mandates — and that 'something' is almost always religious freedom."
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