For the first time since 2008, when the first LGBT non-discrimination bill was heard on the hill to protect gay and transgender Utahns from hiring and housing discrimination, a bill to provide those protections passed out of a Senate committee Thursday on a trajectory toward finally becoming the law of the land. To get to this point though, the bill had to also accomplish clear and bright protections for religious freedoms. Despite the fact that the bill received the coveted imprimatur of the top leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for enhancing protections for the faithful, several members of the public challenged it for usurping “God's law.” Others blasted it for elevating the LGBT community above others.
“This bill would allow a teacher to come in cross dress to your schools, and there's nothing you can do about it,” one man warned the committee.
But these hand-wringing hysterics were not shared by the committee, who were receptive to the herculean effort put into balancing LGBT rights and interests of religious freedom into
the crafting of Senate Bill 296
Robin Wilson, a law professor and expert in religious-liberty issues brought in from the University of Illinois to help craft the bill, commended lawmakers for the historic legislation. She was especially impressed by the care put into such a bill in the wake of court decisions to allow same-sex marriage in Utah that certainly devastated many religious believers.
“One thing that could have have happened here on the heels of a bitter loss is that people could have dug in and made it worse,” Wilson said. “But this bill is better than that. If you enact this bill, it will say that Utah is better than that.”
Wilson highlighted the key points of the bill that balanced the scales between LGBT and faith communities.
For example, she pointed out that the bill would exempt churches and their wholly owned affiliates—such as the LDS Church and Brigham Young University, its higher-education facility—from being subject to the non-discrimination protections.
The bill would also exempt businesses with 15 or fewer employees.
Wilson also pointed out the bill would close existing loopholes in state law by exempting stand-alone religious associations and parochial schools. This would allow Catholic Community Services, for example, to not have to compromise its beliefs in the administration of a homeless shelter, or, for that matter, private religious schools that aren't directly affiliated with their church would not have to compromise the teachings of their faith. Exemptions would also cover property owners of student housing near BYU who would need to ensure tenants followed the university's Honor Code.
One of the critical points for protecting all Utahns, Wilson stressed, was that employers could not retaliate against employees for their speech outside of the office, such as if they had donated to a political cause.
Inside the office as well, speech that is not harassing or disruptive would be protected as long as an employer allowed for such talk in the office.
“The employer, without this bill, wouldn't have the ability to regulate that speech,” said Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who is sponsoring the bill equally with Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George.
Professor Wilson stressed, however, that speech—whether it was political or religious—would not be allowed to run counter to the “essential business interest” of the employer.
“If I worked at Planned Parenthood, for example, it would be totally appropriate for them to say you can't wear a little button with 'Right to Life' on it,” Wilson said.
During public commentary, former Salt Lake City Police Officer Eric Moustos told the committee about how he says he was fired for refusing to drive his motorcycle in the Utah Pride Parade, despite having worked with another officer to swap assignments that day.
Urquhart, while acknowledging he didn't know the specifics of how Moustos had raised his objection to his superiors, told the committee that under the bill, Moustos' actions would have been protected as an expression of his religious conscience, so long as his request was done reasonably and wasn't disruptive or harassing.
The end goal of the bill is for LGBT Utahns to not be discriminated against or evicted onto the street for being gay or expressing their gender identity, and people of faith would not be demonized for speaking their minds and could be reasonably accommodated for acting on their beliefs in the workplace.
While many could appreciate the work that had been done, many were also critical of the late arrival of the bill in the waning days of the session and lamented it did not give them time enough to study the implications, especially on touchy subjects such as exactly how much accommodation would an employer need to provide suitable
bathroom facilities for a transgender employee.
“This is a very important, historic bill,” said George Chapman during public testimony. “But I also realize that an important, historic bill does not need to be rushed through.”
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, noted that in many ways, however, the bill had been in the works since 2008 and was not an issue that was blindsiding the Legislature.
Weiler also admitted that there was much he personally didn't know about LGBT issues, especially transgender issues but that he was learning. And while he didn't personally believe there were a high number of instances of discrimination affecting LGBT Utahns, he believed the message of the bill was vital.
“I think that this bill will help the few who are being discriminated against, but I think it also helps send the message to the young people struggling with their identity, struggling with whether they want to stay alive—I think this sends a very strong message that they play a role in our society,” an emotional Weiler said.
The bill subsequently passed out of the committee by a unanimous vote.
To read SB296, click here. To contact Sen. Urquhart about this bill, click here. To contact Sen. Adams about this bill, click here. To find your legislator to contact them about this bill, click here. For more updates from the hill, visit CityWeekly.net and follow @EricSPeterson and @ColbyFrazierLP on Twitter.