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Gay civil-rights advocates praised Utah senators for passing through committee for the first time Thursday a bill that would prohibit discrimination at work or in housing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bill, SB262, a measure that supporters have been working on the past five years, would offer statewide protections which are in place in just 17 municipalities, including Salt Lake City.
"I think now is a moment truly to take the time to celebrate," said Brandie Balkan, executive director of Equality Utah, the group that has pushed for the statewide measure, after the vote. "Today for first time, the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community of Utah can see demonstrated progress in attitudes."
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, who sponsored SB262, said all Utahns should have the opportunity to work and keep a roof over their heads.
"I've never been more excited about a bill," said Urquhart, who has been in 13 legislative sessions.
During the packed Senate-committee hearing, Urquhart spent most of his time telling members what the bill is not, saying the antidiscrimination bill would not create "special protections" for gay and transgender people; that it would not adversely affect small businesses; and that it does not have anything to do with same-sex marriage.
The bill would fall under Utah's Antidiscrimination Act, which applies to businesses that employ 15 or more workers but does not apply to religious organizations or associations.
Many of the state's largest companies, expressing concerns about the state's economy, favor passage of the statewide bill, including Ancestry.com, eBay, and CHG Healthcare Services.
Michael Weinholtz, CEO of CHG, which employees 1,600 people nationwide, told the committee a nondiscrimination bill would help to recruit talented employees to Utah.
However, several committee members and speakers expressed the view that homosexual acts are immoral and should be condemned by definition.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, asked, "What are the values we're going to advance?"
Urquhart responded: "This is a bill for equal rights; it's not about thoughts but actions."
Clifford Rosky, associate law professor at the University of Utah and a member of Equality Utah's board, said he's conducted the only survey concerning LGBT discrimination in Utah, which found 43 percent of gay Utahns and 67 percent of transgendered people had been discriminated against for employment.
Although the bill passed its first hurdle Thursday, supporters admit it will be difficult getting it through the Senate and House, and having Gov. Gary Herbert sign it.
"I've embraced the idea that local governments have found a way ... to address it in their own communities,"Herbert said recently in an interview.
The Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee is made up of seven members. In a 4-3 vote, the committee's two Democrats, Sens. Patricia Jones and Karen Mayne, were joined by Republicans Peter Knudson and Ralph Okerlund, to advance the bill to the full Senate. The opposing votes were cast by Sens. Aaron Osmond, Reid and Jerry Stevenson.
A Senate committee voted 4-3 to pass the measure, which now heads to the Senate. Two Democrats and two Republicans voted yes; three Republicans voted no.