SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator proposing a Utah hate crimes law lashed out at the LDS Church on Thursday for issuing a public statement that he says mischaracterizes and dooms his legislation.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "effectively snuffed out" with a press release countless meetings and hours spent crafting the bill.
"Any claim that my bill needs to go away because of a lack of balance, that's a false flag," Urquhart said at a Capitol news conference. "That mischaracterization must be corrected."
But other lawmakers Thursday, including House Speaker Greg Hughes and last year's anti-discrimination and religious liberty bill co-sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, echoed the need for a balanced approach to legislation, and noted possible threats to the balance from both sides of the political spectrum.
The LDS Church issued a statement Wednesday in response to media inquiries about its position on proposed hate crimes law. It expressed concern about legislation that could upset the compromise lawmakers reached last year to protect religious liberty and LGBT rights, but did not mention specific bills.
"The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year in arriving at legislation that protected both religious liberty rights and LGBT rights. Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance," LDS Church spokesman Dale Jones said. "We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained."
Urquhart, a Mormon, said he would no longer refer to last year's anti-discrimination and religious rights bill that he co-sponsored with Adams as the "Utah Compromise." He said the LDS Church has "perverted" that term into a "club to beat back further progress on civil rights."
But Adams, R-Layton, said that legislation wouldn't have happened without LDS Church leadership getting behind it. He praised the church for being "willing to take a risk and go to work."
Last year, 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 as the result of a compromise among often adversarial groups, including the LGBT community, state lawmakers and the LDS Church.
Adams said he doesn't want to see anything disrupt that spirit of cooperation. Besides the hate crimes bill, he said there are other efforts underway that could undermine the compromise including a religious freedom restoration act, a transgender bathroom ban and preference for heterosexual couples in adoptions.
"I do not want to lose the spirit that we experienced last year. That's my biggest fear. We've come too far together to start letting individual issues start tearing us apart," he said.
Urquhart's SB107 would include sexual orientation, sexual identity and other categories of people in Utah's hate crimes law. It would more clearly define a hate crime as an offense against a person or person's property based on a belief or perception about their ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation.
It also would allow prosecutors to bump the level of a crime up one step for both misdemeanors and felonies, raising a class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony, for example.
The law would not affect or limit free speech or other recognized rights under the Utah or U.S. constitutions, according to the bill.
A Senate committee endorsed SB107 last week. The full Senate has yet to consider it.
Equality Utah, the Statewide Association of Prosecutors and the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City support the bill. The Utah Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute have come out against it.
Whether Utah needs a law to step up penalties for hate crimes has been a matter of heated debate since the first bill passed in 1992, after being stripped of its teeth. Prosecutors have said it's unenforceable.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said of the 1,279 reported hate crimes in Utah the past 20 years — the majority of which are related to race — none were prosecuted under the current law.
"When it comes to bias crimes in the state of Utah, we talk the talk but we do not walk the walk," he said.
The law treats painting a smiley face or swastika on a Jewish synagogue the same, as simply graffiti, Urquhart said, adding his bill would change that.
Urquhart said the LDS Church has not talked to him about the measure. He apologized during the news conference to the religious, ethnic, LGBT and minority Utahns he said the proposed law would have protected. A church spokesman declined further comment Thursday.
Other lawmakers being watched during the legislative session for possible action include Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, who opened a bill file this session titled "religious liberty amendments" but has not introduced it. He ran legislation last year that attempted to make the legal exercise of religious liberty a defense against claims of discrimination. It passed the House but did not get a hearing in the Senate.
Christensen said he decided on his own but for the same reasons the church expressed not to make that bill a priority. He said even though there would be reason to consider whether further action is appropriate in Utah, it could wait.
Hughes, R-Draper, said he agreed with the church's statement and had already discussed holding off on additional legislation with lawmakers, including Christensen.
"I think the description in that statement about those that would like to revisit these topics from both sides of the political spectrum have been resisted. I think that is consistent. I think we've tried to say, 'Look, there was a lot of heavy lifting that happened last year. Let's all take a deep breath and let's let some of the things that we've passed roll out and work and see that happen. Let's not try to jump on new legislation either way," he said.
Hughes said he's let members know he'd "like all quiet on the western front," a sentiment he said he's expressed to Christensen. But the speaker said he hasn't told Christensen that he couldn't move forward with a bill on religious liberties.
Late Thursday, Christensen introduced HB393, which could disrupt the balance. It says Utah has authority over domestic relations within the state and that court decisions on marriage don't compel or require changes in other areas of the law including child welfare and adoption.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
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