Supporters of a statewide bill to prohibit housing and job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are pragmatic but hoping to take another small step forward as they bring the measure to the Legislature for the fourth time in five years.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, will present the legislation to a Senate committee Thursday evening, the latest episode in a debate that has engendered passionate debate and strong, polarized opinions over the years.
“I want to promote respectful dialogue and respect for all positions, because I just came to this position this past year, so I’m surely in no position to [disparage] anyone at all who isn’t where I am,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart said he has believed for some time that people shouldn’t be discriminated against based on sexual orientation, but felt until recently that he might be out-of-step with residents in his district.
It has been gratifying, he said, to hear from constituents since he introduced the bill who have thanked him for introducing the bill and shared personal stories related to the bill.
Sixteen municipalities in Utah have passed ordinances prohibiting employment discrimination, and 17 have adopted ordinances banning housing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
There was hope from some supporters that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might publicly endorse a statewide anti-discrimination law — as they did with Salt Lake City’s ordinance — but ultimately the church chose not to get involved.
Urquhart, the first Republican to sponsor the legislation, recognizes that the chances of passing the bill this year are slim, but is hopeful it can get out of the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee.
“At that point, I think it gets significantly tougher,” he said. “I think this probably will be a multi-year process and I want to build friends and allies and not create enemies.”
Bill Duncan, director of the Center For Family and Society at the Sutherland Institute, said Urquhart’s bill, as with past versions of the bill, raises questions about religious liberty for large organizations, small organizations and individuals.
Adding gender identity to the list of protected classes also raises the question of whether that identity can change and what employers and landlords have to do to accommodate those individuals.
“I think we have to be somewhat sympathetic to businesses that [accommodating those people] may be tricky and how do they adjust to that without legal liability?” Duncan said.
Duncan said the difference between city ordinances and a state law is that the state would have more resources and a mechanism to investigate complaints, while the cities have seen few complaints.
Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday that people shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, but he’s not convinced a state law to prohibit that is necessary.
“There are concerns about laws getting in place that violate other people’s rights,” he said. “In the meantime, I’ve embraced the idea that local governments have found a way … to address it in their own communities. I think that’s been a good way to do this and it’s, right now, as far as I can see, the best way to do it.”
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he and Senate leaders entered the session recognizing they could have stopped states and counties from passing ordinances to address LGBT discrimination, but “we were content to let that policy exist.”
“There comes a point where you have to address it as a state, but I don’t think it has reached that threshold yet,” Niederhauser said.
Brandie Balken, executive director of the group Equality Utah, said the bill is making slow but steady progress.
“If it passes out of committee, and we have a real solid shot at that, we’ve never achieved that before,” she said. “We’ve seen the dialogue change a lot in that it’s now to the subject matter, it’s not so primal. We’ve seen that progress happen. Is it happening fast enough for most? No.”