Officials with some of Utah's most prominent companies said Thursday that a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation would be a boon to business recruitment and help the state shake a perception that it is intolerant.
"We're trying to attract people into this great state," said Tim Sullivan, president and CEO of Ancestry.com, which has 900 Utah employees, during a forum on the proposed legislation. "We do find perceptions outside the state that make it difficult in particular to recruit gay or lesbian employees."
Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, is once again proposing legislation that would prohibit housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Similar bills have been tried and failed in recent years.
This time, he is joined by a Republican, Rep. Derek Brown of Cottonwood Heights, who is co-sponsoring the bill. The bill could go to a legislative committee next week, but passage of the measure remains a long shot.
Opponents argue it creates special, nebulous protections in law for a group of people and could undermine Utah's ban on gay marriage.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the proposed law would create special treatment for gay and lesbian Utahns.
"It sounds like that's exactly what you're doing," Jenkins said. "In my mind, you are picking a special activity and creating a special class of people."
It would be impossible to know if someone was gay unless they put it on a job application, he contended. "How can I fire them, because I don't know what that is?" he asked.
Jenkins said it seems to him to be a matter of perception that people are being mistreated.
But Jay Magure, vice president of government relations for 1-800 Contacts, said as far as his company is concerned, if the best workers won't come to Utah, the company suffers.
"The perception is actual harm," he said. "If we can't bring the best workers to the state, that harms us."
In 2008, 1-800 Contacts adopted a formal anti-discrimination policy and extended partner benefits. A statewide anti-discrimination law could help bolster the perception of the state as being tolerant.
The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce recently endorsed such a law.
Billy Stern, general counsel for Ancestry.com, moved from New York to Utah to work for the company. Because the company has a nondiscrimination policy, he feels comfortable bringing his partner to company functions without fearing for his job, he said.
But if he were to leave Ancestry, he said he would likely leave Utah if there was no law prohibiting discrimination, "in order to stay comfortable in my own skin and own domestic relationship."
Brandon Pace, general counsel for eBay, which has 1,400 Utah employees and is expanding in the state, said if the workers won't come to Utah, the company will have to move elsewhere.
"If we can't find the right people here, we'll open a shop someplace else," he said. "Everything we can do to make it more attractive to our perspective candidates or make it more attractive to our existing employees is a plus."
In 2009, Salt Lake City enacted the first ordinance in the state prohibiting housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. At the time, Salt Lake City acted with the express backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Since then, 13 other local governments have followed suit, with Harrisville City in Weber County, which adopted the ordinance this week, the latest to act.
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor, said 21 states have passed similar laws, and major Utah employers like Adobe, American Express, Wells Fargo and Zions Bank, have nondiscrimination policies, as do half of the Fortune 500 companies.