Legislators seek constitutional amendment against affirmative action

Published February 11, 2010 7:02 pm
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Utah Republican lawmakers want to amend the state Constitution to prohibit preferential treatment in hiring or college admissions based on race, gender or ethnicity.

The effort comes despite existing state law and departmental policies that prohibit discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.

Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, and Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, are sponsoring the proposed amendment, with the backing of Ward Connerly, a former member of the California Board of Regents who helped California add a similar amendment to that state's Constitution.

"We want to imbed in your Constitution that the government will treat everyone the same, simple as that," Connerly told members of the House Republican caucus to loud applause.

Connerly was meeting with legislators Thursday, along with Jennifer Gratz, who sued the University of Michigan alleging she was denied admission because of reverse-discrimination. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in her favor.

She now works for Connerly's American Civil Rights Institute, which has helped pass anti-affirmative action laws in Washington, Michigan and now has one pending in Arizona.

"The Legislature is just giving people here the chance to discuss this issue, debate the issue and vote on it," said Gratz.

The Utah legislation will go before the House Business and Labor Committee Friday morning. If it is approved by the House and Senate, it will go on the November ballot and could take effect Jan. 1, 2011.

The proposed amendment does not address sexual orientation, so it does not violate a moratorium -- struck by legislative leaders and Democratic lawmakers -- against pushing any legislation relating to same-sex discrimination this session.

Jean Mills-Barber, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resource Management, said the state already has fair employment practices. Utah administrative rules say that "All state personnel actions must provide equal employment opportunity for all individuals" and that employment decisions are not to be based on anything other than job performance.

The department, she said, is neutral on the resolution.

And Spencer Jenkins, a spokesman for the Utah Board of Regents, said that the board has a policy in place prohibiting preferential treatment or discrimination.

"We haven't taken a formal position on the resolution and how it relates to our current policies, but it's something we're taking a look at," he said.

Despite the policies in place, supporters point to a committee meeting last year, where a state education official boasted of the department's effort to hire more minority teachers -- boosting the number of ethnic minority teachers from 3.3 percent to 5 percent.

That, said Gratz, is a quota. "I would say that's pretty hard and fast. It's just not written," she said.

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