Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, faced a tough committee as he pitched his bill to extend workplace and housing non-discrimination protections to all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns statewide. ---The Senate Government Operations Committee included five Republicans and one Democrat. Even Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, sat in a committee chair. Since she arrived late to the hearing and couldn’t find a seat in the audience, members of the committee allowed her to sit in a chair at the dais.
McAdams’ Senate Bill 51 was a repeat of a bill he had proposed in the 2011 session that was never able to escape the Legislature’s Rules Committee. This year, the bill was given a hearing, but from the outset it was clear the bill faced a tough crowd of legislators. McAdams’ presentation was bolstered by testimony from Clifford Rosky, a professor of law at the University of Utah and board member of the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah. Rosky tried to cut off criticism from the beginning that the bill would create a special class of citizenry with rights above others.
“What the bill does not do is make gay and transgender people a protected class or give them rights other don’t have,” Rosky said. “What it says is that you can’t discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- you can’t fire someone because they’re gay or straight.”
Rosky also pointed out that the bill allows exemptions for religious organizations, businesses with 15 or fewer employees, landlords with four or fewer rental units, as well as student dorms.
McAdams came to the Legislature this year with the backing of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of his bill, and argued that it was good for business to have laws that were conducive to recruiting talented personnel. He also argued that the 14 cities and counties that had previously passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances had shown that the measure wasn’t provoking frivolous lawsuits against businesses, as some critics had speculated.
“They haven’t opened the floodgates of litigation,” McAdams said. “But they have fostered a dialogue of respect.”
The public testimony drew comments from a handful of members who spoke out of the more than 70 individuals packed into the committee room to hear the bill.
Jeremy Cunningham, a citizen, spoke in favor of the bill and related his story of working for a large company without any incident for years and even receiving a glowing employee evaluation -- only to be fired weeks later after a coworker confronted him about his sexual orientation after having seen him talking with a gay man.
“I felt dehumanized,” Cunningham said “Then I discovered that [that the firing] was perfectly legal.”
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, questioned him as to what reason was given for Cunningham’s firing, and he said that after five years of asking the cause for his determination, this year he received “a handwritten, scribbled note with the reason for being terminated [listed] as 'other,''' Cunningham said.
But not all were so supportive. Ruzicka left her committee-chair seat to come to the microphone and speak against the bill. She argued that if religious organizations should be exempted then religious individuals who own businesses should also be exempted from complying with the bill.
“I think religious people should have that same opportunity as religious institutions,” Ruzicka said. “What if I own some apartments … and I want to make sure the people that rent those apartments have the same standards that I want ther e-- I wouldn’t be able to make that choice. I’d have to allow those that are living a gay lifestyle to move in there.” She likewise asked if the owner of a religious bookstore would have to worry about the ability to hire employees who shared a lifestyle conducive to the nature of the business.
Committee member Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, also criticized a component of the bill that offered protections to employees based on their political activities. She worried that the bill would take away an employer’s ability to fire someone whose political activism might bring a boycott to the business as collateral damage.
“Employers should have some say,” Dayton argued -- a point McAdams conceded was something he would take out if necessary. “As a business owner, I certainly should not be forced to suffer economic harm in my private business because an individual I employ is a member of the [Ku Klux Klan],” McAdams said, in agreeing with Sen. Dayton.
But the committee was not about to pass the bill and fix it later. Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, agreed with the “principle” of nondiscrimination but worried about unintended consequences in the workplace.
“If we have this in place and if someone, somehow, discloses [sexual orientation or gender identity] to me during the interview process, that might be perceived as a veiled threat that if they don’t get the job then I might get [dragged] to court,” Thatcher said. “Even if they don’t win, how much money, how much time will I waste in not being able to run my business?”
While Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, moved that the bill be passed favorably out of committee, Sen. Scott Jenkins quickly reversed that motion, after agreeing with his Republican colleagues that the bill would adversely affect employers.
“I’m not sure this legislation won’t hurt as much as it will help,” Jenkins said. “I am absolutely opposed to discrimination and I do not think it should happen, I think we should all be loving and accepting of our neighbors, and with that, Mr. Chair, I’m going to make a substitute motion that we table this legislation.”
McAdams, in his last-ditch closing pitch for the bill, argued that the bill was in keeping with what Utahns believe.
“Protection against discrimination is a Utah value,” McAdams said. “Nevertheless, we have discrimination in Utah. We have people who are evicted from their homes or lose their jobs because of how they life their life.
“I don’t believe we have to choose between protecting against discrimination and the religious values many of us have in our state. I believe that faith and respect can coexist, and this bill would accomplish that,” McAdams said.
Ultimately, the committee disagreed and voted four 'yes' votes to two 'no' votes to table the bill and keep it from advancing to the Senate floor. The opposing votes were cast by Sen. Robles, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Casey Anderson, R-Cedar City.