A bill that has Troy Williams, Gayle Ruzicka and the Southerland Institute all speaking favorably has passed the Utah Legislature the night before the end of the legislative session. Government officials may decline to perform marriages based on religious beliefs – or their own conscience, for those not religiously inclined – but the counties must ensure that someone is available to perform all marriages so that no couple requesting a legal marriage is turned away.
Senator Stuart J. Adams, R-Layton, introduced bill SB 297, which would require officials to either perform all legal marriages or decline to perform any marriages, with exceptions for religious officials or religious organizations. If an official opts out of performing a marriage, they opt out of performing all marriages (unless the couple is a close relative). No religious official or organization will be required to solemnize a marriage that is contrary to the religious statutes. This clause was included to clarify, that protection is already given under the First Amendment.
The bill also allows businesses to discriminate based on religious affiliation without the risk of punishment or discrimination from the government.
Each county clerk office must have someone who is able to solemnize a legal marriage.
“One of the underlying elements of what we’re trying to do is maintain the same spirit of tolerance, fairness, of compassion and making sure that we limit the ability of anyone to discriminate,” said Adams.
During the House Judiciary Committee Hearing, a representative from the conservative Southerland Institute, Troy Williams of Equality Utah, and Gayle Ruzicka of Utah Eagle Forum all spoke favorably of the legislation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also expressed their support of the legislation, which was presented in the House of Representatives right after SB 296, the religious freedoms and anti-discrimination bill that the LDS church has also publicly backed.
Williams’ favor was lukewarm, and focused his support on the ability of the legislators to compromise and present a substitution. Initially, he had not supported the bill, out of concern that it would allow for unequal treatment of the LGBT community.
“We expressed our concerns with Senator Adams and we had some very spirited conversations and we are pleased with the changes in the new substitute,” said Williams. “On principle, we don’t love the idea that clerks have the option to opt out, but we do recognize the extent that Senator Adams has made in expanding opportunities for LGBT and straight couples to access marriage throughout the state.”
Adams brought Robin Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois to testify in support of the bill.
“It is that I may have an expression of religious faith in a non-professional setting and I can’t be punished or have my license revoked the next day,” said Wilson.
Government officials are protected from any repercussions for expressing their religious beliefs – if someone says they
believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, this bill protects them from having their license taken away. That said, they can still recuse themselves from performing marriages if they choose.
During House floor time, Representative Brian S. King (R-Summit County) expressed concern that the bill would give the right for personal beliefs to trump the obligation to act in the best interest of the public. He voted in support of the bill.
“When individuals choose to act in an official capacity in the name of the public, their duty to the public trumps any individual religious obligations that they may feel individually. If they are not prepared to do that, they shouldn’t put on the
hat of acting as a public official,” said King.
The bill was proposed late in the Senate, on March 5, and made it through two committee hearings and both the Senate and the House within a week. The House of Representatives passed the bill 66-9 the night before the last day of the session and the Senate passed the substitution 25-3 with one absent on Thursday morning
Representative Jacob L. Anderegg, R-Lehi, had proposed a bill at the beginning of the session that would allow any officials who can legally perform marriages to refuse to solemnize specific marriages based on their religious beliefs. Adams’ bill is a compromise that .