A controversial bill banning housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is dead for the legislative session, without getting a vote from the full Senate.
“[It’s] our conclusion that this year we do not have the votes to pass” the bill, said the sponsor, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.
But proponents of SB262 were still pointing to getting the bill through a Senate committee — the first time that has happened in five years of trying — as a major victory they plan to build on.
“We have a lot of work to do this next year and we will do that work,” Urquhart said. “We will make sure it’s against the law in Utah to discriminate in employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Advocates from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had negotiated for more than a year with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to try to win support for the legislation.
The church — of which more than 80 percent of the Utah Legislature are members — had backed Salt Lake City’s local ordinance in 2009 banning housing and employment discrimination, the first of its kind in the state.
But with the deadlines of the session, the two sides were just unable to come to an agreement, said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, who was instrumental in brokering the 2009 deal with the church.
“We really did come this close,” said Dabakis holding his fingers just slightly apart. “The pressure of the session came upon us and we just couldn’t close the gap.”
He wouldn’t discuss the sticking point in the talks with the church representatives.
Laura Bunker, United Families Utah, who spoke against SB262 in committee, said she was pleased to hear the bill would not get a vote.
“Our concern is that the bill could be a slippery slope, opening the door for same-sex marriage,” she said.
Bunker said she expects the bill to be back next year and her group will continue its opposition. But by then the state could have clearer guidance from the Supreme Court on the issue of defining gender identity.
“We could live in a totally different climate next year,” she said.
SB262 was modeled after the Salt Lake City ordinance and similar local ordinances that have prohibited housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in 17 municipalities and employment discrimination on those grounds in 16 cites.
Proposals have been brought forward almost every year for the past five sessions and defeated each time, often without ever getting a committee hearing.
But Brandie Balken, executive director for the group Equality Utah, said that during that time the “entire tone and tenor of the conversation has changed.”
“I think the first time in my professional life and indeed my adult life, I felt this year, this session, with this Legislature that we actually had more supporters than we had opponents,” she said.
She said that in addition to polls commissioned by her group that found three-fourths of Utahns support the anti-discrimination law, numerous community groups and a growing number of businesses threw their support behind the bill.
“It seems that we are now witnessing this moment of a coalescing of support around these common sense, common values protections that a majority of Utahns stand for,” she said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Monday that he doesn’t expect the bill to get debated and, under legislative rules, Monday is the last day for the Senate to pass bills that originate in that chamber.
Niederhauser said the LDS Church didn’t help bottle up the bill. Rather, it was simple math that did it in — he said he guesses the Senate is split about 60-40 against the measure.
“It’s just a matter of where the votes are,” said Niederhauser. “It’s the last day for Senate bills and the question is: Why, if we don’t have the votes, do we want to spend a lot of time debating it?”
Urquhart, the first Republican sponsor of the bill, said he hadn’t actually tallied support, but said it was not a matter of just being a few votes from passage.
“You look along generational lines, more and more people are getting it as we go along. … I feel a little late to the party, but I’m sure glad I’m here,” he said. “We’ll get there. I know that we’ll get there.”