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For the past four years, the Legislature has snuffed out efforts to ban discrimination against gay and transgender Utahns. But this year, the proposal has a champion from a new and, perhaps, surprising source.
For the first time, the bill will be sponsored by a member of the Republican majority, Rep. Derek Brown, of Cottonwood Heights. He is working with past sponsor Democratic Sen. Ben McAdams.
"It's the right thing to do," Brown said. "This is a value not only of mine and my friends and family, but it reflects the values of the community I live in, the values of the constituents I represent."
Brown and McAdams hope to win over Republican lawmakers who make up nearly 80 percent of the Legislature by forbidding housing and employment discrimination based on a person's political speech outside the workplace in addition to a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
That means someone could not be fired for donating cash for or against gay-marriage efforts in other states, said McAdams, D-Salt Lake City. After California's contentious Proposition 8 campaign in 2008, there were reports of people losing their jobs for supporting the measure, which succeeded in banning same-sex marriage in California.
"We want to show that we respect faith," McAdams said. "We respect people's right to express a viewpoint that may be religiously motivated without fear of retribution."
Brown acknowledges his Republican colleagues traditionally "steer clear" of bills aimed at bolstering protections for the gay and transgender community, but says he thinks this year will be different. There's a "critical mass" of cities and counties that have adopted anti-discrimination ordinances 13 from Logan to Grand County. A statewide law would bring uniformity to enforcement, Brown said.
The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce provided a major boost for the bill's proponents this week by calling for such a law, saying that discrimination is bad for business in the state.
James Humphreys, political director for the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, said the group has worked hard to bring Republicans on board and has more than a dozen GOP members who are considering co-sponsoring the bill.
"It has taken a much longer time to educate our GOP colleagues and friends so they understand we're doing everything we can to protect religious freedom and expression while closing a loophole that allows people in this state to be discriminated against," Humphreys said.
And, in an election year, McAdams hopes lawmakers take note that 73 percent of Utahns favor a statewide law to protect gay and transgender residents from anti-discrimination, according to a Dan Jones & Associates poll in October that was commissioned by Equality Utah.
The LDS Church, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the anti-discrimination bill on Friday. In 2009, the church publicly endorsed Salt Lake City's adoption of the first anti-discrimination ordinance in the state, calling the measures "fair and reasonable." When asked about a statewide law then, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an LDS apostle, said, "Anything good is shareable."
"As far as I'm concerned, their previous statement was clear and unequivocal," McAdams said.
Paul Mero, president of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, said the new protections for political speech don't do anything to ease his concerns.
"That's not much of a compromise," Mero said. "When he wants to [exempt] religious adherents in his bill, then there's an opportunity to have a conversation. Until then, all this other talk about the political speech kind of thing is just nothing."
Mero said that adding protections for sexual orientation to law is dangerous because sexual identity is vague and makes it too easy for people to be unjustly accused of discrimination.
But the real danger, he said, is that such ordinances are another step toward gay marriage which Utah outlawed through a constitutional amendment in 2004.
"We know what they want. It's just sad they can't be honest about it," Mero said. "The best statewide effort would be to nullify the few local ordinances that have been passed."
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and member of Equality Utah's board, said a dozen other states ban discrimination based on political speech and activity, but this would be the first bill that combines that protection with banning anti-gay and anti-transgender bias.
State law already protects Utahns from discrimination based on religion, he noted.
He dismissed as "false" a common argument from opponents that protecting gay and transgender people from discrimination is a "slippery slope" to legalizing gay marriage.
"Amendment 3 bans same-sex marriage in the state of Utah. It's part of our state Constitution," Rosky said. "No statute can change it."
Changing the Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the Legislature and a majority of Utah voters.
McAdams, who is a senior adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said that the city has received three complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation since the ordinance was passed. All three were found to be without merit, he said.
Gov. Gary Herbert has opposed legal protections for gay and lesbian Utahns in the past. Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said Thursday that it would be premature to comment on McAdams' bill until the specifics are clear.
"Governor Herbert is clearly on the record stating that all people should be treated with respect and civility. He feels no one should experience discrimination," she said. "Further, he has supported the ability of local communities to determine the composition of such ordinances."
The anti-discrimination bill has been unable to even get a hearing in the Senate. Brown hopes starting the bill in the House will help its prospects.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said there is no reason to pass a statewide anti-discrimination measure and force communities to accept values they may oppose. But McAdams said he thinks the bill simply reflects common Utah values.
"There are real protections in this bill, but there's also a symbolic statement out of this, that we can respect our neighbors and we can respect somebody's faith and live together in the community," McAdams said. "I think that's what Utah is."
Panel will meet on Thursday
P Sponsors of a statewide anti-discrimination bill will present a "dialogue on common values" for the public and lawmakers.
When • Thursday, 5 p.m.
Where • Auditorium of the State Office Building, north end of the Capitol Complex
Which entities in Utah have passed anti-discrimination ordinances?
Salt Lake City
West Valley City
Salt Lake County