Dialogue » Ordinances would protect against housing and employment discrimination and are a first for Utah
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Hours after the LDS Church announced its support Tuesday night of proposed Salt Lake City ordinances aimed at protecting gay and transgender residents from discrimination in housing and employment, the City Council unanimously approved the measures.
"The church supports these ordinances," spokesman Michael Otterson told the council, "because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."
They also are consistent with Mormon teachings, he said. "I believe in a church that believes in human dignity, in treating people with respect even when we disagree -- in fact, especially when we disagree."
Normally more deliberate, the council opted to vote after dozens of residents in the overflowing crowd expressed their support.
"Guaranteeing a right to fair housing and fair employment is not an issue of compromise," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said. "We are a stronger, better city this evening. I'm proud to serve on a City Council where this isn't even controversial."
The LDS Church's endorsement was hailed by leaders of Utah's gay community -- some of them stunned -- who called it a historic night they hope will set the stage for statewide legislation.
"This is a great step," said Will Carlson, director of public policy for the advocacy group Equality Utah. But, he noted, four out of five gay Utahns live outside the capital and should be afforded protection as well. "Equality Utah will continue to work for that."
Councilman J.T. Martin said some will dismiss the church's move, arguing LDS leaders blinked or caved to pressure. "That's not the case," he said. "I can tell you they do have compassion. They have church members who have gay sons and daughters, and they know this is an issue that touches everyone's life."
Tuesday's announcement and subsequent vote follow more than two months of secret meetings between midlevel LDS officials and five of Utah's most prominent gay leaders. Those meetings have their roots in the "kiss-in" protests that took place after LDS security detained two gay men spotted hugging and kissing on the church's Main Street Plaza.
Former City Councilwoman Deeda Seed organized the first kiss-in and called Council Chairman Carlton Christensen to talk it over. Christensen suggested to LDS leaders that a dialogue with Utah's gay community may ease hostilities.
The officials reached out to leaders of Equality Utah and the Utah Pride Center, proposing they huddle at the Church Office Building. The gay leaders suggested a coffee shop at the Utah Pride Center. They settled on a neutral location -- the Avenues home of Sam and Diane Stewart. The Stewarts are active Mormons and close friends of Jim Dabakis, who helped found Equality Utah and the Pride Center.
Suspicion marred initial meetings. "These were two communities living in the same town that just had no understanding of each other," Dabakis said. "It was quite uncomfortable in the beginning."
Slowly they built a level of trust and good will. They searched for common ground, understanding that the LDS Church wasn't about to back gay marriage and Utah's gay community would not stop pushing for what it considers civil rights.
The meetings fizzled a few weeks ago, but then Dabakis got a call from an LDS official asking to reconvene the "gang of five." They met four times since Thursday in the lead up to Tuesday's announcement.
The LDS Church sees its move as an olive branch to the gay community after months of growing tension over the church-backed Proposition 8 vote -- barring gay marriage in California -- and the kiss-ins. Dabakis hopes it isn't the end of the discussion, but a high point in a burgeoning "friendship."
"They are really trying to put some of the Prop 8 stuff behind them," Dabakis said. "The discussions we have had over the last several months have shown what a caring, loving, concerned institution [the LDS Church] is."
The discussion, he said, "changed all of our lives."
Seed describes the tone of the meetings as sincere. "What everyone found is that we really liked each other. There was a good rapport," she said. "It reaffirmed for me the power of people talking to each other -- even if you have incredible differences. You start to see the humanity."
The meetings were emotional, Seed says. Gay leaders recounted "horrible" anecdotes about being shut out of decisions regarding a partner's will and medical care.
"It's the power of stories," she added. "We had tears in our eyes."
Salt Lake City's newly passed measures are firsts for Utah. A campaign promise by Mayor Ralph Becker, they apply to allegations of bias that occur in the city and set up a complaint process.
"We ultimately fashioned ordinances," Becker said, "that reflect the needs of our community."
More than 100 U.S. cities have enacted similar protections for gay and transgender people.
The Sutherland Institute, a conservative Salt Lake City think tank, reaffirmed its opposition to the anti-discrimination laws and repeated its call for the Legislature to overturn them.
"Each new inclusion in the law of such vague terms as 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity,' " the group said, "represents a mounting threat to the meaning of marriage."
Utah has a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage.
Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, applauded Becker for introducing protections she would "love to see" take hold across the state. Her group pushed a collection of "Common Ground" bills in the 2009 Legislature that would have enacted protections, including safeguards from housing and employment discrimination, after the church said it does not oppose certain legal rights for same-sex couples. Advocates plan to try again next year.
State Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City and one of three openly gay Utah lawmakers, hopes the church backs such statewide legislation.
"If this is good and right and OK for Salt Lake City," he said, "why wouldn't it be good and right and OK for all the citizens in Utah?"
Participants in the secret meetings note both sides spoke philosophically about the need for public policy to be formed without fear of reprisal from the Legislature.
House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, said the press has been more active in talking about a possible legislative repeal than lawmakers themselves. But he said it would be "interesting" to watch how the church's statement moves public opinion.
"History has proven that the side of the issue [church officials] take has public-opinion sway," Clark said. "Public-opinion sway has a sway on legislators."
At least one legislator isn't swayed. Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, said he does not plan to run a repeal bill himself, but he would vote for one if someone else does.
"There are people who are working to that end," he said. "My opinion was mostly based off of the harm that it can and will cause to businesses and private property owners. That principle still stands."
In Tuesday's passion-filled public hearing, speakers emphasized the ordinances do not create special classes, but simply afford the same rights straight residents enjoy.
""I want my family and my friends to have the same protections I have," said Gail Turpin, a stepmother and sister of lesbian women. "I see no reason on earth why they shouldn't."
Jon Jepsen, a member of the city's Human Rights Commission, pointed to a UCLA study that reported Utah has vaulted from 38th to 14th in the nation for people living in committed same-sex relationships. "There are LGBT people everywhere in our community. Maybe we should raise the terror alert to rainbow."
But Jessica Rodrigues argued homosexuality is akin to pornography and said residents should have the right not to associate with gay people.
""It is a moral wrong to pass this ordinance," she said, "It is awful that you get the support of the LDS Church on this."
Still, the council's unanimous passage drew an extended standing ovation.
"Good evening. My name is Michael Otterson, and I am here tonight officially representing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The nondiscrimination ordinance being reviewed by the City Council concerns important questions for the thoughtful people of this community.
"Like most of America, our community in Salt Lake City is comprised of citizens of different faiths and values, different races and cultures, different political views and divergent demographics. Across America and around the world, diverse communities such as ours are wrestling with complex social and moral questions. People often feel strongly about such issues. Sometimes they feel so strongly that the ways in which they relate to one another seem to strain the fabric of our society, especially where the interests of one group seem to collide with the interests of another.
"The issue before you tonight is the right of people to have a roof over their heads and the right to work without being discriminated against. But, importantly, the ordinance also attempts to balance vital issues of religious freedom. In essence, the church agrees with the approach which Mayor [Ralph] Becker is taking on this matter.
"In drafting this ordinance, the city has granted common-sense rights that should be available to everyone, while safeguarding the crucial rights of religious organizations, for example, in their hiring of people whose lives are in harmony with their tenets, or when providing housing for their university students and others that preserve religious requirements.
"The church supports this ordinance because it is fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage. It is also entirely consistent with the church's prior position on these matters. The church remains unequivocally committed to defending the bedrock foundation of marriage between a man and a woman.
"I represent a church that believes in human dignity, in treating others with respect even when we disagree -- in fact, especially when we disagree. The church's past statements are on the public record for all to see. In these comments and in our actions, we try to follow what Jesus Christ taught. Our language will always be respectful and acknowledge those who differ, but will also be clear on matters that we feel are of great consequence to our society.
» Forbid housing and employment discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation or gender identity in Salt Lake City.
» Exempt religious organizations, businesses with fewer than 15 employees and some small landlords. (The exemptions mirror those in state and federal laws.)
» "Not create any special rights or privileges," the ordinances state, because "every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity."
» Create a complaint and investigation process. The complaint could be resolved through mediation or a fine of up to $1,000.
» Not create a "private right of action" to sue over alleged discrimination.
» Require annual reports by the city's Human Rights Commission on the effectiveness of the statutes.
Source: Salt Lake City