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Salt Lake City's policy protecting gays, minorities now law

Published March 7, 2007 12:35 am

Gays, other minorities will be protected; a former council member predicts civil unions could be next
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Salt Lake City's new ordinance banning workplace discrimination based on specified categories, including sexual orientation, does not replace a general policy that says employment decisions will be made on "job-related criteria." A story Wednesday mischaracterized the impact of the ordinance.

Now that one of Rocky Anderson's first acts as mayor - a 2000 executive order protecting gay city employees from bias - will be the law in Utah's capital, a former city councilwoman predicts civil unions will be next and a current councilman wonders about discrimination against obese workers.

"It's a wonderful demonstration of how our community has come to understand that discrimination against people based on sexual orientation is wrong," said former Councilwoman Deeda Seed of Tuesday's 6-1 vote for the ordinance.

Ten years ago, she advocated for a similar law but was unsuccessful. Tuesday's vote shows the political power of the gay and lesbian community, she said. "The next frontier, and we're going to see movement soon, is that civil unions are going to be recognized, as [they] should be."

Councilman Carlton Christensen cast the lone "no" vote because he opposes recognizing the gay "lifestyle" on moral grounds.

While he said he has a "deep concern" about employees facing a hostile work environment - and doesn't want gays and lesbians to be discriminated against - he fears the ordinance is more about recognition than it is about protecting employees from hostility.

Plus, he worries the city discriminates against obese people, who are not protected by the new law.

Noting he had no proof of discrimination, he said of the "slew of secretaries that have gone through the mayor's office, I haven't seen one that's 25 pounds overweight."

Anderson called the charge "absolutely absurd. That is the stupidest thing that's come out of his mouth."

The mayor said the office conducts competency and writing tests. "You won't find any scales."

The gay-rights advocacy group Equality Utah had been championing the nondiscrimination ordinance, saying it could help the city with recruiting employees. Keri Jones, an administrator with the group, said some 400 Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their nondiscrimination polices.

Seed got a law passed in 1997 protecting gay employees, but it was repealed a month later. Christensen, the only remaining council member from that time, helped rescind the law in 1998.

Councilwoman Nancy Saxton, who replaced Seed on the council, is behind Tuesday's vote.

"Sometimes it's just going to take time for people to come along," she said. "It behooves us a leaders in our community . . . to give them special protection when it's not explicit in our constitutional rights."

Unlike in 1997, when the public hearing was highly emotional - with residents speaking out for two hours - this council declined to hold a public hearing, to Saxton's disappointment.

"It's difficult to legislate away bias and discrimination," said Councilwoman Jill Remington Love. "I don't think we need to discuss it. As a government body we need to be proactive."

The ordinance trumps Anderson's executive order and replaces a general nondiscrimination policy, which says employment decisions will be made on "job-related criteria." Christensen said that policy now protects gay employees.

Besides forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation, the new policy includes race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability and honorable or general service in the U.S. armed forces.

Anderson signed the nondiscrimination executive order three months after taking office his first term. A future mayor could have rescinded it. Still, he wasn't enthusiastic about Saxton's move. He labeled it political posturing, since she is running for mayor. Councilman Dave Buhler is also running for mayor and voted for the ordinance.

The mayor does plan to sign the ordinance.

"We're making a lot of progress. There are some who see a lot of political advantage [in it]. Sometimes, that's how public policy's made."

The vote comes roughly a year after the same council unanimously agreed to make Salt Lake City the first, and so far only, Utah government body to offer employees' gay partners health insurance.


In other news

The Salt Lake City Council agreed to add "Japantown Street" to 100 South between 200 West and 300 West to honor the once-thriving district that was decimated by the Salt Palace.




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