LDS apostle: SLC gay-rights measures could work for state

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The LDS Church's unexpected endorsement of two Salt Lake City gay-rights measures has many observers wondering if another surprise could follow: a friendlier reception in the 2010 Legislature for such protections statewide.

Even an LDS apostle -- continuing the string of stunners --thinks Salt Lake City's ordinances could be a model.

"Anything good is shareable," Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in an interview Wednesday, referring to Salt Lake City's new policy aimed at protecting gay and transgender residents from discrimination.

He praised the efforts of Mormon officials and gay-rights leaders who sat down to discuss the issue before the church's endorsement.

"Everybody ought to have the freedom to frame the statutes the way they want," he said. "But at least the process and the good will and working at it, certainly that could be modeled anywhere and even elements of the statute."

At a public hearing Tuesday, church spokesman Michael Otterson expressed strong support for ordinances that, starting in April, will ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in housing and employment. Salt Lake City, home to the worldwide faith's headquarters, approved the statutes in a unanimous City Council vote.

It marked the first time the church has endorsed specific, pro-gay legislation. The organization has taken stands on the opposite side, championing gay-marriage bans in Hawaii, Alaska and California and drawing flak from gay-rights supporters.

"The conflict between the LDS community and the LGBT community hasn't been limited to Salt Lake City," Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public-policy manager, said Wednesday. "The resolution can extend beyond Salt Lake City as well."

Last year, Equality Utah launched the Common Ground Initiative, arguing that even those who disagree on gay marriage can agree on things like making it illegal to fire someone for being gay or providing health-care safeguards to same-sex couples. The bills were modeled after rights the LDS Church said it did not oppose. But Mormon officials snubbed an invitation to join the campaign. All three bills fizzled in the 2009 session.

At least one of the measures is poised for a 2010 comeback: an anti-discrimination statute that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's fair employment law. The bill includes the same exemption for religious organizations and their affiliates that Otterson praised in Salt Lake City's ordinances.

That means the capital's new rules, prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender workers, homebuyers and renters, do not apply to churches or small businesses. The LDS Church and its wholly owned subsidiaries, such as the towering City Creek Center condos taking shape in downtown Salt Lake City, are exempt.

Rep. Christine Johnson, the Salt Lake City Democrat who plans to float the state anti-discrimination bill for a third time in 2010, said she feels "immensely grateful" to the LDS Church for its "fair and compassionate" stand on the city ordinances. She hopes Otterson's statement will help dispel arguments, widespread during the 2009 Legislature, that providing any legal protections for gay and transgender people sets public policy on a slippery slope to gay marriage.

"The church has helped establish, with clarity," she said, "that establishing a policy of nondiscrimination in no way compromises the integrity of marriage between a man and a woman."

Otterson said Tuesday that Salt Lake City's ordinances grant "common-sense rights" and "do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

Would the LDS Church endorse similar anti-discrimination measures for Utah?

"The church would reserve judgment," LDS spokesman Scott Trotter said via e-mail Wednesday. "We are not prepared to speculate on something we haven't seen."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker's legislative liaison, Ben McAdams, hopes the church's position will provide cover for state lawmakers who otherwise may propose legislation killing the city's anti-discrimination effort. And it may deflate the fiery rhetoric expressed by conservatives, including Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan.

"This will make the legislative session a lot easier," McAdams said.

Even Buttars, an ardent gay-rights foe, struck a conciliatory tone Wednesday, insisting he has no plans to trump Salt Lake City.

"I agree with the church that a person ought to be able to have a roof over their head and have a job," he said. "I don't have any problem with that."

But following Tuesday's approval, Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he already has heard from lawmakers who "would like to run a bill to overturn" what Salt Lake City did.

On the flip side, he also has heard from others who want the state to follow Salt Lake City's lead.

Waddoups does not see the church's endorsement as a "mandate" for state action. But he acknowledged it could hold sway. Most Utah lawmakers are LDS.

"I would like to think that all legislators that are members of the church are independent minded and would do what is best for their constituents," Waddoups said. "On the other hand, most of their constituents are LDS."

Still, conservative stalwarts the Sutherland Institute and the Eagle Forum have vowed to fight any statewide anti-discrimination measures.

On Wednesday, Gayle Ruzicka, leader of the Eagle Forum, said Salt Lake City's new ordinances are "very discriminatory."

"We expected the church not to have a problem because they've been carved out of it. The rest of us have not been carved out of it," she said. The ordinances "discriminate against people who have personal religious beliefs."

She added that what flies in Salt Lake City cannot be expected to take root in the rest of the state.

"The people who live in Salt Lake are mostly those who support those who choose a homosexual lifestyle or they themselves are part of that lifestyle," she said. "They elect people who vote the way they want them to."

Tribune reporter Derek P. Jensen contributed to this report.

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