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After weeks of behind-the scenes negotiations with legislators, the LDS Church and gay advocacy groups, lawmakers released a draft bill Wednesday seeking to bar housing and employment discrimination against the LGBT community but carving out narrow religious-liberty protections in the workplace.
The parties praised the measure as a victory for all Utahns even though all sides had to compromise in its creation and a potential "model" for other states.
"We want to express deep gratitude and appreciation," Mormon apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in a rare appearance on Utah's Capitol Hill, "to those who have worked so diligently to craft a solution which can serve as an effective model for other local and state governments wrestling with these same complex issues."
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, echoed that sentiment.
"Today, we prove the protections for LGBT Utahns can stand alongside protections for people of faith," he said. "One need not harm the other."
Gov. Gary Herbert also lauded the compromise measure.
"Today's announcement is a great example of what makes Utah great. We work together to tackle difficult issues," Herbert said in a statement. "The way our state has addressed this issue will serve as a model for the rest of the nation."
The bill, SB296, specifically exempts the Boy Scouts of America, leaning on a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared the Scouts could not be forced to hire gay leaders.
The measure is the product of hours of negotiations that the parties described as "exhaustive." Attorneys from the state's predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were intimately involved in its drafting. Most Utah lawmakers are Mormons.
If it passes, the bill would, for the first time statewide, make it unlawful for employers and landlords to discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
"It would grant every LGBT person in Utah an opportunity to earn a living and to keep a roof over their head. That right does not now exist in the state of Utah or in 29 other states," said Cliff Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and chairman of Equality Utah's board. "This bill is a bill that protects [those individuals from becoming] the unemployed and the homeless. It's profound."
SB296, which is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Business and Labor Committee on Thursday morning, does not deal with "public accommodations" such as bakers and photographers.
Sens. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, are sponsoring the measure. For Urquhart, it replaces his previous nondiscrimination bill, SB100.
SB99, which seeks to tackle public accommodation, has been introduced but will not get hearing this year, according to its sponsor, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City.
SB296 also states that the anti-discrimination safeguards "may not be interpreted to infringe upon the freedom of expressive association or the free exercise of religion," and that "an employee may express the employee's religious or moral beliefs … in [the] workplace in a reasonable, non-disruptive, and non-harassing way."
Specifically, the bill states that workers could not be fired for expressing beliefs on marriage, family or sexuality unless they conflict with the employer's business interests.
The measure also details that employers could impose reasonable dress-and-grooming standards and policies on sex-specific restrooms, but would have to make "reasonable accommodations" based on gender identity.
The exemptions for religious freedom were concessions to the LDS Church after top Mormon leaders said early in the session that they would support a nondiscrimination bill if it provided protections for expressions and the exercise of faith.
Dabakis, the Utah Legislature's only openly gay member, said SB296 represents the "best of Utah" and is an example of what can be done when people of disparate beliefs work to find common ground.
"I am very, very proud to be a Utahn today. My heart is filled," a tearful Dabakis said. "I'm proud we can start with such differences and we can talk … and be respectful, roll up our sleeves, communicate and find things that bring us together. Religious liberty and nondiscrimination, those are Utah values."
Top Mormon leaders, including Christofferson, Neill Marriott, second counselor in the church's Young Women general presidency, and apostle L. Tom Perry, second in line for the LDS Church's presidency, appeared at Wednesday's news conference to endorse the bill.
"Inevitably some will be critical of aspects of this bill," Christofferson said. "But the bill contains strong religious-freedom protections and a fair approach in housing and employment."
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka expressed disappointment in the measure, which she said falls short in its safeguards for people of faith.
"We really expected in this bill there would be protection for individual liberty and conscience and the individual," said Ruzicka, who favors HB322, from Rep. LaVar Christensen, which includes such protections and cleared a House committee Wednesday evening in a 6-5 vote.
Christensen, who attended the news conference but did not stand with supporters at the podium, would not say whether legislative leaders sought his input during the SB296 negotiations. The Draper Republican said the individual-protections language in his proposal now headed to the House floor ultimately could "blend" with SB296 before the legislative session ends March 12.
"That would be nice," Ruzicka said, while adding that it seems an unlikely scenario, given the high-profile backing SB296 has from such high-level LDS leaders.
"Having church leaders here today won't change my opinion on whether or not I think it's a good bill," she said. "Having church leaders here today will certainly give me reason to consider what I do about it."
The nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization praised SB296, noting its significance emerging in the heart of Mormondom.
"This is an extraordinary moment for the state of Utah, for LGBT Americans, and for the Mormon church, which, by supporting this legislation, shows a willingness to align with others on the right side of history," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a news release. "The desire exhibited by the Mormon church to work toward common ground should serve as a model for other faith traditions here in the United States."
Equality Utah's Williams said if he had known, when he was a 20-something gay Mormon missionary, that such compromise was possible, he would have had "tremendous hope for the future."
"The work that we do today, the legislation that we pass this session, will provide hope to thousands of LGBT youth," he said. "We will send a message to them that you belong in Utah; this is your home."
In 2009, the LDS Church endorsed two Salt Lake City ordinances barring housing and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. It marked the only time until Wednesday that the Utah-based faith had endorsed specific, pro-gay-rights legislation.
Since then, nearly 20 Utah cities and counties have passed similar nondiscrimination ordinances, according to Equality Utah.
Repeated attempts to pass a statewide nondiscrimination bill always fizzled. Last year, legislative leaders refused to hold a hearing on such a bill while the federal courts were considering a challenge to Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
That certainly will change this year, with a hearing already set for Thursday for SB296.
"This bill is a model, not just of legislation but more importantly of how to bridge the cultural rift tearing America apart," Dabakis said. "After the divisiveness and bitterness of 2008's Prop 8, the LDS Church and the LGBT community began to come together. We have rolled up our sleeves and, with respect and civility, we have found common ground." And that meant giving up some ground. LDS leaders noted that no parties got all they wanted in the bill something they had predicted would be the case going into the intense talks.
"In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others," the Utah-based faith said in a statement Wednesday. "After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah Legislature has wisely struck that balance. LGBT people cannot be fired or denied housing just for being gay. At the same time, religious conscience and the right to protect deeply held religious beliefs is protected by robust legislation."
What the bill would prohibit
The Human Rights Campaign pointed to the following provisions in SB296:
• Employers would be barred from discriminating against applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation
• All individuals would enjoy the same free-speech protections in their private lives and could not be fired for supporting or opposing same-sex marriage.
• Landlords and property owners could not discriminate against people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.
• No religious exemptions from the nondiscrimination provisions would be allowed for individuals or for-profit businesses.
Source: Human Rights Campaign