Ravell Call, Deseret News
Around the atrium at top, couples wait to get marriage licenses outside the Salt Lake County clerk's office, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. At center, couples are married.
When it comes to the county clerk's office, we still don't like the idea that you get to opt out of performing your job as a government official regardless if there's somebody else who's willing to step in and do it —Marina Lowe, ACLU policy and legislative counsel

SALT LAKE CITY — Some advocacy groups say a bill that would let government workers opt out of performing gay marriages undermines compromise legislation that aims to balance nondiscrimination and religious freedom.

But others say it offers protections for people of faith that are not part of that legislation. Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka called SB297 a giant step in the right direction.

Equality Utah, the American Civil Liberties of Utah and LGBT advocates oppose the bill introduced by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, on Thursday. They favor Adams' other bill, SB296, that includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment.

"We were surprised," said Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director.

Williams was among those who celebrated the introduction of SB296, which has the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LGBT rights advocates and community leaders. He said Equality Utah was not part of the talks on the other bill.

Salt Lake attorney Michelle Turpin said politically the two bills might not be contradictory, but "emotionally they are hugely contradictory … emotionally it's very hurtful."

On Friday, Adams presented another draft of the legislation to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Though many questions were raised, the committee unanimously moved it forward with the idea Adams would continue to work with interested parties to bring a bill to the Senate floor.

Adams said he's trying to eliminate the possibility of discrimination by giving elected county clerks direction on how to handle legal same-sex marriage in Utah. He said he's trying to find a balance between "faith and obligation."

SB297 would allow elected county clerks to opt out of solemnizing gay marriages for religious reasons as long as they find someone in or out of the office such as a local pastor who would do it. Religious objectors could not be fired for declining that duty.

Those who choose not to perform marriages for same-sex couples would then not have the ability to perform marriages at all.

Laura Bunker, president of United Families International, said she supports the bill because clerks wouldn't have to choose between making a living and keeping their religious convictions.

The Sutherland Institute also favors the legislation. Bill Duncan, director of Sutherland's Center for Family and Society, said it fills holes created by the court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage. He said it "ensures fairness even in the face of judicial efforts to redefine marriage."

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson said the marriage deputies in her office have never asked to opt out.

"We don't distinguish between traditional couples and same-sex couples," she said on KSL Newsradio's "Doug Wright Show." "We just treat every couple the same. It's worked very well. My employees have been very willing to do that."

Equality Utah fears that broad individual exemptions in SB297 might be granted to an unlimited number of people. Williams said it would not support legislation that might adversely impact the fundamental rights of LGBT Utahns.

Marina Lowe, ACLU policy and legislative counsel, finds some parts of the bill troubling.

"When it comes to the county clerk's office, we still don't like the idea that you get to opt out of performing your job as a government official regardless if there's somebody else who's willing to step in and do it," she said.

Government officials, she said, shouldn't get to pick and choose whom they serve.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill is still a rough draft.

"Let's just see how it evolves," he said. Dabakis, the state's only openly gay legislator, worked closely with Adams on the nondiscrimination bill.

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