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Washington • Legislation protecting gay and transgender employees from workplace discrimination passed a Senate committee Wednesday and for the first time Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was among the supporters.

Hatch's evolution on the issue mirrors that of his Mormon faith.

The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints endorsed a similar law passed by the Salt Lake City Council in 2009. And the faith's lawyers have negotiated with gay-rights leaders on a potential statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination, but have yet to strike an accord.

The LDS Church has taken no position on the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act, known as ENDA, which the committee approved on a 15-7 vote.

Hatch was one of three Republicans to join all of the Democrats in favor of the bill. The other two Republicans — Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have also backed gay marriage.

"I oppose any form of discrimination, though I do draw the line on the definition of marriage," Hatch said shortly after the vote, espousing a position similar to that offered by LDS leaders.

He said it was "a tough vote" that he was willing to cast in part because ENDA exempts religious organizations and their affiliates. Hatch said that religious exemption is stronger than the one in the 1996 version that he voted against. That bill also didn't protect transgender people.

But Hatch continues to have some of the same reservations that other Republicans do.

"They have natural concerns about whether we are going to make it so some of these very serious moral issues can only be handled in one way," he said. "That worries me, too."

Partisan split • None of those objections was voiced during the short hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday. All 12 Democrats were present to cast their votes, but only three Republicans were there. They were Kirk, Murkowski and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the committee's top-ranking Republican. The other six Republicans, including Hatch, voted by proxy. Hatch was leading a Finance Committee hearing at the time.

Alexander didn't explain his opposition to ENDA but did promise to offer three amendments to the legislation when it reaches the Senate floor this fall, including one instructing businesses how to handle offering separate bathroom facilities.

The Traditional Values Coalition, led by Andrea Lafferty, opposed the bill, arguing that parents shouldn't have to explain "gender confusion" to their children if a teacher changes his or her gender.

"Our children's education and well-being should be more important than catering to the unhealthy psychological condition of a very small group of individuals," Lafferty said.

Hatch didn't use such loaded language but said he has some concerns about how the nondiscrimination bill would be implemented. "I think this is going to have to work itself out over time," he said.

That may be longer than this bill's backers want. Hatch doubts that enough Republicans will support the measure to get it through the Senate and it faces even longer odds in the GOP-controlled House.

The bill has 53 co-sponsors in the Senate, which doesn't include Hatch or Murkowski, but it would take at least 60 votes to earn a final vote. The corresponding House measure has 177 co-sponsors, including Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. It takes at least 218 votes to pass a bill in the House.

The bill's champions heralded Wednesday's vote as a historic step toward eventual passage and broader gay equality, linking it to the recent Supreme Court ruling requiring the federal government to recognize gay marriages performed in the 13 states that recognize those unions.

Committee chairman Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also said it was un-American to allow companies and public employers to fire, discipline or refuse to hire individuals because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, which is legally acceptable in 34 states including Utah. It is illegal to do so based on race, gender, age, disability and other factors.

"They are being judged not by what they can contribute to a company, but by who they are or whom they choose to love," Harkin said. "Qualified workers should not be turned away or have to fear losing their livelihood for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, skills or performance."

Harkin said he hoped the Senate would debate ENDA and vote on the legislation after its traditional August break.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, hasn't taken a position on the legislation and a spokesman said he would review the bill.

Courageous • Utah Democratic Party Chairman and state Sen. Jim Dabakis helped negotiate the LDS Church's support of Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination ordinance, calling it a "red-letter day."

"It was a bold move," he said. "It was a courageous move and I salute the church for it."

The conversations leading up to the new ordinance stemmed from a controversy in which two gay men were detained by LDS security for hugging and kissing on the church's Main Street Plaza.

LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson addressed the City Council at the time, saying: "The church supports these ordinances because they are fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

Since then, 14 other cities and counties in Utah have since passed anti-discrimination laws, including Salt Lake County. The County Council sent a letter to Hatch in June asking him to support ENDA.

"We believe this to be good public policy that should be replicated on the federal level to protect all Americans regardless of the municipality in which they work," said the letter. "This legislation will not allow preferential treatment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and it would not apply to small businesses with fewer than 15 employees or religious organizations."

Dabakis, who is gay, said he wasn't surprised by Hatch's vote because the conservative senator has always been "fair" and he anticipates that Congress will eventually pass the bill as well.

"It just seems fair and logical and reasonable," Dabakis said, "and I think the Congress is going to do the right thing."

Twitter: @mattcanham