Salt Lake nondiscrimination effort under fire

Published August 25, 2009 5:43 pm
Legislature » No 'appetite' for fair-housing and employment protections for gays, House speaker says.
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For more than a year, Salt Lake City leaders have cataloged cases of discrimination against gay and transgender residents who lost their jobs or their homes -- simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But if the city passes an anti-discrimination ordinance to outlaw such prejudice, state lawmakers are signaling they may shred it when the Legislature convenes in five months.

"Depending on how they carve out a protected class," House Speaker Dave Clark says, "it creates a concern that is something we would want to look at."

The Santa Clara Republican notes there was "not a will" this year on Capitol Hill to pass the Common Ground Initiative, which, among other changes, would have made it illegal statewide to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. "I don't anticipate there's any more of an appetite to pass it now."

What's more, Sen. Chris Buttars, a vehement gay-rights critic, doubts discrimination against gay and transgender people is a significant problem.

"I've never seen any facts. I see these wild accusations," says the West Jordan Republican. "Let's say someone is gay, but [he's] also a terrible employee -- is that possible? [He gets] fired for something else. You know the gay community is going to claim [the employer] did it because he's gay."

Forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity "totally breaks new ground," Buttars says. "We don't do that for specific groups. We do it for entire populations of Americans."

Buttars, when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune , said he has "no intentions" of running a bill that would quash Salt Lake City's proposed ordinance. But he threatened just that in a public-radio interview earlier this week.

Will Carlson, public-policy manager for Equality Utah, the advocacy group behind the Common Ground Initiative, disagrees that Salt Lake City's planned statute would be groundbreaking.

"Even Senator Buttars has a sexual orientation," Carlson says. "It's not a special group that has sexual orientation. We all do."

Last month, the Human Rights Commission of Salt Lake City submitted a report chronicling discrimination cases against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. Similar incidents were documented during the city's recent "Dialogue on Discrimination" series.

"Even the state itself has documented cases of discrimination," notes Ben McAdams, the city's legislative liaison, who is "not surprised" certain legislators are balking. "We hope they will understand and grant the leeway to Salt Lake City. We're optimistic they can see this as a local matter."

The pushback has surprised City Hall -- given that the ordinance is not yet written. Mayor Ralph Becker still is compiling public comment and plans to submit a statute to the City Council next month. The measure -- which also would ban discrimination based on such things as race, religion, age or disability -- was a campaign pledge of the second-year mayor. And it appears to have council backing.

For his part, new Gov. Gary Herbert is cautious about laws that grant special status by expanding protected classes beyond those already in place in state and federal laws, according to spokeswoman Angie Welling.

At the same time, Welling says, the new governor is a "strong supporter of local government" and backs Salt Lake City's right to make policy for its jurisdiction.

City Attorney Ed Rutan says the capital simply is responding to a "factually demonstrated need."

"We would hope that the Legislature would view this as a sound public policy for Salt Lake City and not intervene."

Rutan, along with McAdams, also rejects the notion floated by Clark that the planned ordinance may violate terms of the city's nearly two-year-old mutual-commitment registry. That measure, upheld after a name change in the 2008 Legislature, helps verify status for insurance benefits and hospital-visitation rights for domestic partners. Salt Lake City also was the first municipal government in Utah to make benefits available to the domestic partners of employees.

McAdams says "there was no deal" stipulating the city not pursue additional protections for gays on the heels of the registry.

It does not appear possible for the city to parse language that would afford housing and employment protections for the city's 10,000-plus LGBT residents without making that designation specific by ordinance.

While the city has a right to pass such rules, Rutan says, action taken by the Legislature to kill them "probably will stand."

"The city has a right to do this," the city attorney says, "but the state has a right to trump us."

If passed, likely this fall, the nondiscrimination edict could result in $1,000 fines for employers or landlords after both a complaint and an investigation. Corporations would be slapped with $5,000 penalties.

"I'm confident the council won't pass anything that's not constitutional," Councilwoman Jill Remington Love says. "If there were an issue, we would welcome the opportunity to work it through with them."

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Some findings from SLC discrimination report

7.6 » Percentage of Salt Lake City residents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

3.2 » Percentage of Utah's population that does.

539 » Number of employment-discrimination claims of all types in Utah last year.

105 » Number of housing-discrimination claims of all types in Utah last year.

3 » Number of calls the state received, on average, each month about employment discrimination based on sexual orientation when it voluntarily tracked such data.

58 » Percentage of unemployed in Salt Lake City's disabled population.

31 » Percentage of residents who speak a language other than English at home.

Source: Salt Lake City Human Rights Commission

More on the Web

To read the discrimination report or a summary of Salt Lake City's proposed ordinance, go to http://www.slcgov.com

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