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A Utah senator criticized his church Thursday for a statement that he said effectively kills a bill aimed at strengthening the state's hate-crimes laws and better protecting victims of bias-motivated offenses.
At a Capitol news conference, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said he had worked with prosecutors and activists for a year on SB107.
"Yesterday," Urquhart said, "all of those efforts, all future legislative dialogue, all future legislative processes, they were effectively snuffed out by a press release."
On Wednesday, a statement issued by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cautioned lawmakers most of whom are Mormons against passing laws that would upset the balance between gay rights and religious liberty achieved through the historic Utah compromise legislation in 2015.
"I now reject the term 'Utah compromise,' " said Urquhart. "Yesterday that term, that concept, through a press release was perverted into a club to beat back further progress on civil rights."
Top LDS leaders worked alongside lawmakers and activists last year to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law that protects the gay and transgender community in housing and employment, while offering exemptions for churches and religious-liberty protections for people of faith.
"The Utah Legislature achieved something extraordinary last year," the church statement reads. "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."
While the statement offers no specific reference to SB107 or any other bill, it was issued in response to questions about the hate-crimes legislation and is widely seen as a warning that lawmakers should not tackle any issues in which LGBT rights and conservative values collide. That could include proposed legislation to address marriage, adoption, religious liberties and, apparently, hate crimes.
Urquhart scoffed at the suggestion that SB107 which aims to impose tougher felony and misdemeanor criminal penalties on those who target their victims because of biases against race, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or other classifications (something not available to prosecutors under current law) offers special protections to any group or alters any carefully crafted balance of interests in Utah.
"It protects religious communities, it protects the LGBT community, it protects everyone of any race … gender, sexual orientation …" he said. "It protects all of us in the exact same way. That is balanced legislation. So any claim that my legislation needs to go away because of a lack of balance, that's a false flag."
SB107, which passed favorably through a committee hearing on a 5-1 vote, awaits consideration by the full Senate. It wasn't immediately clear what effect the LDS Church statement would have on a vote.
It was the second time this legislative session that a state senator has lashed out at Utah's predominant faith for making an effort to derail legislation with little explanation of its reasoning. The first incident occurred when the LDS Church opposed a medical-marijuana bill. Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs and the targeted measure's sponsor, said if Mormon leaders were "going to put their thumb on the scale politically and force everyone to a standard, then I think they owe something of an explanation to the people."
Madsen, like Urquhart, is Mormon.
The LDS Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Urquhart has no plans to pull the bill, which is backed by an Equality Utah-led coalition that includes more than 30 religious groups, individual churches and ethnic groups. The Statewide Association of Prosecutors and the Utah Sentencing Commission also support the legislation.
"I would love for [the bill] to pass this year," Equality Utah Executive Director Troy Williams said Thursday. "But we know what happens when the LDS Church makes a statement about legislation. It changes the course."
Utah has three existing hate-crimes laws, the first of which was passed 20 years ago. None allows prosecutors to do more than ask judges to impose stiffer penalties for misdemeanor crimes.
State data show police departments statewide have reported 1,279 hate crimes to the Utah Department of Public Safety since the early 1990s. 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.
None has resulted in any prosecutions, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said.
Gill told The Salt Lake Tribune that he understands the LDS Church's "not at this time" message.
"But that begs the question, when is the right time?" he said after the news conference. "When do we provide that measure of justice?"
Gill said he would like the church to provide more specific information on its concerns.
"What is the language, the punishment? What is wrong with this statute?" he said. "Give me some direction so I know how to correct it, so I know how to write a better statute."
Urquhart also invited the church, which he said had been a beacon of light to his family when he joined the faith in his youth, to talk with him and learn more about SB107's intent.
"I ask it to let its light burn bright as it did here last year … and join in our effort to equally protect religious communities and the LGBT community and all of the broader Utah communities," he said.
Urquhart apologized to Utah's minority communities whether racial or religious for the state's failure to offer them legal protections he believes they deserve, "because of a press release, issued by my church."
"Right now, under Utah law, there is no legal difference between burning a pile of leaves on a black family's lawn and burning a cross," Urquhart said. "Both are just treated like a trespass."
He also apologized to his fellow Mormons, who will also be left unprotected from the terror that hate crimes impose on the wider community when church buildings are vandalized or set on fire by those who dislike the faith.
Such legal protections, Urquhart said, would have been offered under SB107, but the church's statement suggests that the price for that is too high, even in a place where Mormons are the religious majority.
"What is that price?" he said. "It is that all religious protections be coupled with protections for the LGBT community. It is our church that has specifically rejected that balanced approach."