Legislature may let SLC's gay-rights measures stand

Published January 11, 2010 5:55 am
Politics » But GOP leaders not ready to embrace them for the state.
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Salt Lake City's landmark protections for gay and transgender residents appear likely to take effect after surviving the last hurdle: the Legislature.

But most legislative leaders say it's doubtful those provisions against discrimination in housing and employment will be expanded statewide during the 2010 session -- despite a historic endorsement from the LDS Church.

"The Legislature is more inclined to give the Salt Lake City ordinance[s] a year," says Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, "just to kind of see how [they work] and if we need to work any bugs out before we sponsor anything statewide."

Still, Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City, plans -- for the third time -- to push a statewide fair housing and employment bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to existing state laws that bar bias based on a person's race, religion, sex, national origin or other characteristics. A recent poll shows 69 percent of Utahns support doing so.

It's one of two comeback bills from last year's expansive collection of gay-rights measures, dubbed the Common Ground Initiative. The initiative garnered support in public opinion polls and a Republican endorsement from then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. but wilted in the conservative Utah Legislature.

Brandie Balken, executive director of Equality Utah, says Common Ground, despite promises made last year, will not return as a campaign in the 2010 Legislature. Instead, she says, the group will continue to work on the initiative's issues -- health care, anti-discrimination and probate rights -- at the community level.

There have been some successes.

In November, Salt Lake City passed two ordinances -- the first of their kind in Utah -- that ban housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Exemptions are made for religious organizations, their wholly owned subsidiaries and small employers and landlords. At a City Council meeting, LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson said the measures are "fair and reasonable and do not do violence to the institution of marriage."

This past week, Salt Lake County followed Salt Lake City's lead, and Park City is on deck.

"I certainly understand the argument for observing how Salt Lake City and other municipalities succeed," says Johnson, one of the Utah House's two openly gay lawmakers. "But I think that we have nationwide examples of states that have implemented a statewide nondiscrimination policy and suffered no ills."

Johnson points to 21 other states, including Colorado and New Mexico, that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Most of those states, along with the District of Columbia, also bar gender-identity bias.

Stephenson says he supports Salt Lake City's ordinances, but he's not yet ready to endorse statewide measures.

"It's worth looking at," he says. Salt Lake City's policy "doesn't give a right of action for anyone [to sue], but it still acknowledges if somebody blatantly discriminates against someone because of gender [identity] or sexual orientation on housing or employment, there ought to be some consequences."

House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, says he expects Johnson's fair housing and employment bill to fare as well as it did in 2009. It died in committee.

"Nothing has changed," he says. "The result will probably be the same as last year."

Of course, one big change has occurred since then: The LDS Church backing Salt Lake City's ordinances. Even an LDS apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland, has suggested those measures are "shareable."

Garn expects Salt Lake City's anti-discrimination ordinances to survive unscathed. The measures were set to take effect in April after the legislative session.

"It reflects what they believe ought to be done in their city," Garn says. "I just don't think the Legislature is going to try to micromanage that decision by the Salt Lake City Council."

But the Sutherland Institute, which initially called on lawmakers to overturn the capital's ordinances, now is urging the Legislature instead to alter them. The conservative Salt Lake City-based think tank wants the religious exemption expanded to include religious adherents. A lawmaker has not yet agreed to carry the effort.

Such a change essentially would gut the protections, says Ben McAdams, senior adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and an incoming Democratic senator.

At a City Council meeting last week, McAdams predicted the Legislature will not be "narrowing or broadening" the city's ordinances this year, allowing Salt Lake City to be a "laboratory" for anti-discrimination efforts.

But Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, is concerned that other communities, including Salt Lake County and Park City, aren't waiting for Salt Lake City's lab results.

"The Legislature is getting irritated that no one else is sitting back," he says. "I'm guessing we won't sit back either."

He adds, "If everybody's going to do it, we'd just as soon weigh in as wait. It's harder to overturn 20 than to overturn two or three."

Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, says he supports a "wait and see" approach on expanding Salt Lake City's protections for gay and transgender residents statewide.

"I don't have any desire to see [Salt Lake City's ordinances] overturned," Killpack says. "That would be a mistake."

McAdams says anti-discrimination ordinances in Salt Lake County and Park City also could serve as proving grounds for a statewide law.

"Protections at home and at work," he says, "are something that is a basic human right."

McAdams replaces gay-rights champion Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, this session. The incoming senator plans to run McCoy's wrongful-death measure -- one of last year's failed Common Ground bills. The legislation, which will not bear the Common Ground moniker this year, would allow same-sex partners and others to sue when a breadwinner suffers a wrongful death.

"It speaks to the importance of life," McAdams says, "and recognizes that individuals who are in financially dependent relationships need security."

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, promises to revive -- for a third run -- her adoption bill, which would restore the ability of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children. This year, she says, the bill could focus on second-parent adoptions: for instance, when a biological mom wants her lesbian partner to be the child's legal, second parent. (The adoption bill was not part of last year's Common Ground Initiative.)

Johnson plans to push a second bill related to gay-rights: a resolution calling on Congress and President Barack Obama to end the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bans openly gay service members.

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Expected bills in the 2010 Legislature

Discrimination » Rep. Christine Johnson plans to sponsor a bill, similar to the ordinances recently adopted by Salt Lake City, that would provide a statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Wrongful death » Sen. Ben McAdams plans to run legislation to allow same-sex partners and other financial dependents to sue when a breadwinner suffers a wrongful death. Currently, only spouses, parents and children can.

Adoption » Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck plans to push a bill that would allow unmarried couples, including gay and lesbian pairs, to adopt children.

Military service » Johnson has filed a resolution (HJR 4) urging the president and Congress to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which bans openly gay service members.

Salt Lake City trump » It's unclear whether someone will introduce a bill to challenge local governments' ability to pass anti-discrimination ordinances. The Sutherland Institute is pushing for a law that would expand the religious exemption in Salt Lake City's ordinances to include religious adherents.

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