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The Mormon church cautioned the Utah Legislature on Wednesday against passing any new laws that would "alter the balance" between religious liberties and gay and transgender rights as reflected in last year's landmark anti-discrimination legislation.
"The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year," church spokesman Dale Jones said in a written statement. "Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance. We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained."
The statement was issued in response to a question from media outlets about whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would support SB107, aimed at strengthening Utah's hate-crimes laws.
The faith's statement offers no specific support or opposition, but suggests lawmakers should not tackle any issue that would tread into areas where LGBT rights and conservative values might collide, including those related to marriage, adoption, religious liberty and, apparently, hate crimes.
The LDS Church rarely takes public positions on proposed legislation, and most of the time only does so when the issue is considered one of morality. When the faith does weigh in, its position in support or opposition is seen as critical to a bill's success with Utah lawmakers, who are overwhelmingly Mormon.
In 2015, top LDS leaders worked alongside LGBT activists and lawmakers a level of cooperation that many have called historic to pass a statewide nondiscrimination bill that protects gay and transgender individuals in housing and employment, while offering exemptions for churches and other religious-liberty protections.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, sponsored the nondiscrimination bill and is the force behind this year's SB107 on hate crimes. He did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the church's statement Wednesday and what possible impact it would have on the bill's prospects.
Troy Williams, director of Equality Utah, declined a request for comment and said his organization, which has put together a broad coalition to back SB107, plans a Thursday news conference in response to the church's statement. Urquhart, who is Mormon, is expected to speak, along with Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who is the only openly gay member of the Legislature.
Last week, a committee voted 5-1 to advance SB107 for consideration by the full Senate.
SB107 would strengthen Utah's existing hate-crimes laws by allowing prosecutors to enhance the felony and misdemeanor criminal penalties for acts motivated by bias. It would also include in its definition a list of protected classes, including "ancestry, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religion or sexual orientation."
Historically, the Legislature has opposed hate-crimes bills that included such lists, specifically objecting to including sexual orientation.
In past years, the LDS Church issued statements declaring the faith did not oppose such legislation.
Utah's existing laws apply only to misdemeanor crimes and do not include any defined classifications, which is one reason state prosecutors have said the law is difficult to use.
Among those testifying in SB107's favor was Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Paul Boyden, director of the Statewide Association of Prosecutors.
More than 30 organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and many churches, support the bill.
State data show that since 1992, police departments statewide have reported 1,279 hate crimes to the Utah Department of Public Safety. Of those, 49 percent of victims were targeted for their race, 20 percent for religion, 17 percent for ethnicity, 14 percent for sexual orientation and 1 percent because of disabilities.