Despite strong support in public polls and endorsements from prominent business leaders, lawmakers on Friday snuffed out a statewide effort to ban discrimination against gay and transgender Utahns.
In a 4-2 vote, a Senate committee shelved SB51 after a 90-minute public hearing with a standing-room-only crowd.
Sen. Ben McAdams, the bill’s sponsor and a Salt Lake City Democrat, said he was disappointed the bill failed but called the hearing a “valuable discussion” and a “huge milestone.” This is the fifth year that Democrats have run such a bill but the first year to get a Senate hearing.
This year, the Salt Lake Chamber and executives from Ancestry.com, 1-800-Contacts and eBay have endorsed the measure, saying it would enhance Utah’s reputation as a welcoming place to do business. Nearly three-fourths of Utahns support such a law, according to a recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates.
Already, 14 Utah cities and counties have ordinances that ban housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. McAdams said adding those categories to Utah’s existing anti-discrimination laws, which protect individuals from bias based on race, religion, disability and other characteristics, would make the law consistent statewide.
But members of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee raised concerns about frivolous claims and the rights of property owners and employers. They also expressed discomfort with a new provision in the bill that would have protected employees from discrimination based on their political speech and activity.
Sen. Scott Jenkins wondered if the protection would mean any disgruntled employee — including a straight one — could claim he was discharged for being gay.
“Does he have to first prove his sexual orientation?” Jenkins asked. “Whether a person is gay or not ends up being almost a he said, she said.”
Clifford Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and board member of Equality Utah, said it wouldn’t matter what the person’s sexual orientation is. The law not only would protect people who are gay or bisexual, but also people who are straight. Those filing complaints would have to prove to the Utah Labor Commission that an employer discriminated based on their sexual orientation — real or perceived.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, spoke against the bill, saying that exemptions for religious organizations should be expanded to include religious people. Although existing anti-discrimination laws exempt owners of four or fewer units, Ruzicka questioned how she would be affected if she owned a 100-unit apartment complex.
“What if I was renting to singles and wanted I certain standard. I couldn’t say, ‘You’re living a homosexual lifestyle. You cant live here,’” Ruzicka said. “I think I should have the right to do so.”
McAdams said allowing bias because of a person’s religious beliefs would undermine state and federal laws that prohibit discrimination.
“If I want to rent only to people of a certain ethnicity [because of my religious beliefs], I can’t do that. That’s discrimination,” McAdams said.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, said she was uncomfortable with protections in the bill for political speech and activity. McAdams said the provision was added to show “mutual respect” for those with disagreeing political views that may be religiously motivated. He said it would prevent firing someone for donating money for or against same-sex marriage initiatives, such as California’s Proposition 8.
Rep. Derek Brown, R-Cottonwood Heights, had announced he would co-sponsor SB51, but he did not participate in the hearing. Earlier this week he said he had reservations about the political-activity provision.
After the bill failed, McAdams said that part of the bill became “unwieldy” and he likely will scrap it if he runs the bill again. As a candidate for Salt Lake County mayor, McAdams said he will pass the anti-discrimination “torch” to another legislator if he leaves his Senate post this year.
About the bill
SB51 • Would amend Utah’s fair housing and employment laws to bar discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or political speech and activity.
Status • Tabled for the 2012 session.
The committee vote
Sen. Luz Robles, the lone Democrat on the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee, voted against shelving SB51. But some were surprised that Sen. Casey Anderson, a Cedar City Republican, joined her. Anderson said, “there were a lot of reasons to vote against the bill,” but he wanted to give Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, a chance to amend his bill and address questions raised during Friday’s hearing. Anderson also would have preferred a straight-up-or-down vote on the bill’s merits, instead of a vote to “table.”