Some wonder why Utah lawmakers backed off on gay-rights bills

Legislature » Momentum was on our side, advocates say, so why wait until next year?
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With an LDS Church endorsement, surging public support and Utah's most populous city and county signing on, efforts to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination had momentum going into the 2010 legislative session.

So when Democrats shelved until 2011 an anti-discrimination effort -- in addition to three other gay-rights measures -- as a "compromise" to block anti-gay legislation, many supporters felt deflated.

"I understand that there is a political process," Valerie Larabee, director of the Utah Pride Center, said Monday. "It just seems to me that protecting LGBT people is the right thing to do, and waiting another year is disappointing."

Martha Amundsen, a Salt Lake City lesbian and an employment attorney, questions the strategy.

"The choice has been made to roll over rather than go down swinging," she said. "Make the anti-gay legislators have their feelings be known and draw them into the spotlight. This just gives them another year to hide."

Facing five potential bills aimed at stopping or limiting local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances -- similar to Salt Lake City's and Salt Lake County's -- Rep. Christine Johnson and other Democrats called a truce last week, even though the LDS Church, according to spokesman Scott Trotter, has urged legislators not to overturn those local statutes.

Both sides are expected to drop their bills. Johnson, who had planned to run a statewide anti-discrimination bill, is asking the Legislature to take a year to study the issue and decide whether to pass legislation in 2011. That effort, HB128, is co-sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

Johnson hopes to build on the collaborative spirit that led to widespread support, including a key endorsement by the LDS Church, for Salt Lake City's ordinances banning housing and work discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

"This is anything but giving up," said Johnson, who is a lesbian. "It is a priority to keep those [Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County] protections in place. ... The LGBT community has lost nothing with this compromise but has gained an opportunity to make progress on an issue which matters very much to us."

Gail Turpin, a Salt Lake City mother to two lesbian stepdaughters, said she felt "disappointment" when she heard about the deal. As a retiree, she devotes much of her time pushing for gay rights and was looking forward to visiting Capitol Hill this year.

"I was fired up. I was ready to go," she says. "I respect and trust Christine Johnson. ... But I do not trust that the other side is really concerned with the welfare and well-being of the LGBT community. That's what worries me: What happens in this yearlong process?"

Jacob Whipple, a gay activist, wonders how independent the results of a Republican-led legislative committee will be -- although he sees why Democrats chose to compromise.

"They felt it was nothing or worse -- and they chose nothing," he said. "The fact that we came so far in public opinion and in motivating our own community to now be stalemated for a full year, because of this deal, is incredibly disheartening."

Two-thirds of Utahns support expanding Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination protections statewide, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll.

Quin Monson, associate director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it may be a "wise move" for Democrats to wait.

"Certainly the odds won't get any worse over the course of the year," he said. "The downside to waiting is you don't see immediate action. But the upside may be success in the long run."

Bills dropped or blocked by the compromise

Pre-emption » Five bills reportedly were in the works that would have weakened or overturned Salt Lake City's and Salt Lake County's anti-discrimination ordinances.

Anti-discrimination » Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, planned to push a statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Wrongful death » Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, shelved his bill to allow same-sex partners and other financial dependents to sue when a breadwinner suffers a wrongful death. Currently, only spouses, parents and children can.

Adoption » Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, dropped her three-year fight to restore adoption rights for unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian pairs.

Military service » Johnson won't run a resolution urging the president and Congress to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bans openly gay service members.