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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Gov. Gary Herbert holds up a copy of SB296 after signing it at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2015. Applauding is Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Neiderhauser, R-Sandy.

SALT LAKE CITY — Cheers rang out when Utah passed a religious freedom and anti-discrimination bill last month.

SB296 drew praise from a wide range of groups in the state and across the country, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy organization.

But in Indiana, a newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act has drawn resounding jeers. Companies such as Amazon intend to boycott a data industry convention there next month, Connecticut barred state-funded travel to the state, and some political leaders and celebrities have condemned the action.

Utah has not faced a backlash over the legislation it passed last month, likely because the law differs greatly from the one in Indiana.

"The Utah law grants equal protections to LGBT people and people of faith. It says that you can't discriminate against someone because of their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation or their gender identity," said University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky.

"The other laws don't do that," he said. "Our law bans discrimination based on religion, sexuality and gender. Their law legalizes discrimination based on religion."

Utah added sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment, expanded exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates and provided protections for religious expression.

The bill came about as the result of a compromise among often adversarial groups, including the LGBT community, state lawmakers and the LDS Church.

The Indiana law says the government cannot "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow their religious beliefs, unless it can show a compelling interest in or do so in the least restrictive way.

Proponents contend it prevents government from infringing on people's ability to exercise their religious beliefs. Opponents argue it could allow business owners to legally discriminate against not only LGBT people but anyone with whom they might disagree.

The law would not have an immediate noticeable effect but would set a legal standard for courts to apply in cases involving religious objections.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday backed away from signing a similar religious liberty bill the legislature in that state passed. He said he wants lawmakers to change the measure to resemble federal law more closely.

Congress in 1993 approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires federal laws to accommodate individuals' religious beliefs unless there is a compelling interest at stake that can't be attained through other means.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the law could not be applied to the states. Since then, 20 states, including Indiana, have adopted their own versions of the law.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, drafted a bill initially titled the Religious Liberty Recognition and Protection Act that could have taken Utah down the same path as Indiana. It sought to guarantee "perfect toleration of religious sentiment" and that "rights of conscience shall never be infringed." It also recognized the legal exercise of religious liberty as a defense against discrimination claims.

The Utah House passed a revised version of the bill, but it died in the Senate.

Bill Duncan, director of the Sutherland Institute's Center for Family and Society, defends the legitimacy of state religious freedom restoration laws but says Utah in many ways found a better approach.

The weakness of any religious freedom restoration act is that it sets out broad principles that courts have to enforce and might not apply as the lawmakers intended, he said.

"The Legislature in Utah tried to minimize the role of the courts," Duncan said.

Rather than establish principles, he said, the Utah law establishes rules. For example, it exempts religious organizations and schools and specifically the Boy Scouts of America.

"It's not a matter of the courts having to decide if the Boy Scouts have a good reason for their policy, (or) does the government have a good reason for its policy," Duncan said.

The rule-based approach might explain why there wasn't as extreme a reaction in Utah as there was in Indiana, Duncan said.

Marina Lowe, ACLU of Utah legislative and policy counsel, said she's grateful Utah didn't take the same route as Indiana, choosing instead to provide "much-needed" protections for LGBT Utahns in housing and employment.

"At least we didn't put in place pre-emptively something into our law which says it's OK to discriminate not only against members of the LGBT community but really against people on the basis of race or gender or religion or any other factor in the name of religion," she said.

Lowe said it's proving bad for states to pass laws like Indiana's in terms of perception and business interests. A lot of the talk around SB296 was about how it would make Utah more attractive to businesses that want to move to the state and want their employees to feel welcome, she said.

Duncan said critics of the Indiana law are making "ridiculous" claims about what the law would do. He said it's "highly, highly unlikely" that a restaurant owner, for example, would use the law to exclude someone based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

"You'd have to say, 'Does the government have a compelling interest in preventing racial discrimination?' and I think you'd have to say, 'Of course it does.' That's really a well-established principle," he said.

Duncan said the law doesn't mean a person making a religious claim wins, but it allows a claim to come forward.

But Rosky said state laws like the one in Indiana are getting away from the intent of the federal law and twisting the tradition of religious freedom into something else. He said it's being used in some states by a majority to oppress a minority.

"It seems that Americans have figured out that move," Rosky said.

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