Mormon church in talks on statewide law to protect gays from bias
By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Feb 07 2013 05:43PM
Attorneys for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are in quiet discussions with leaders of Utah’s gay and lesbian community, trying to hammer out language for a statewide ban on housing and employment discrimination that the church could support.
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, opened a bill file on Thursday — the last day to request attorneys draft legislation — titled Housing and Employment Amendments and will sponsor the legislation should an agreement be reached.
If the LDS Church, the state’s largest faith to which nearly 90 percent of the Utah Legislature belongs, were to endorse the anti-discrimination bill, it would be a major boost for efforts to pass the legislation, which has failed the past several years.
The church had previously supported a similar ordinance passed by Salt Lake City in 2009, saying that it is "fair and reasonable and does not do violence to the institution of marriage."
The ordinance also exempted religious institutions from the ban on discrimination.
Since then, 16 Utah cities and counties have passed similar ordinances or policies.
Brandie Balken, executive director of the group Equality Utah, would not comment specifically on the discussions with the church, given their sensitive nature.
"We have been working with many community partners, but we’re not ready to release a bill," she said. The talks have been going on for eight months and she assured that a bill would be introduced, hopefully next week, but she said the groups will "take the time necessary to work on the language until we have the best possible bill."
Scott Trotter, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said the church has been contacted as "one of many community stakeholders."
"The discussions are very preliminary. At this point there is no bill for anyone to respond to," he said.
But sources aware of the discussions with the church, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the discussions have been going on for some time and one source said that attorneys for the church have been consulted in trying to put together final language for the legislation.
"We are hopeful that statewide passage will create uniformity for the business community," said James Humphreys with the group Log Cabin Republicans. "This is not only the right thing to do for all Utahns but speaks to our conservative values as we want simplicity in government and equal treatment, under the law, for each of Utah’s citizens."
Last year, Utah businesses made a major push to pass the ban on housing and employment discrimination, but the bill was voted down by a Senate committee. This year, the business community, through the Salt Lake Chamber, has again made it one of its legislative priorities.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said it is difficult to comment on the current round of discussions until she sees legislation. The LDS Church, she said, never tips its hand until it’s listened to all sides and the hierarchy is in agreement.
"If the law looked like the Salt Lake [City] ordinance, that would be very, very upsetting and something that, as always, I have opposed and will continue to oppose in every way possible unless I get some kind of revelation," she said.
LDS Church discussions about an anti-discrimination law proceed even as the faith continues its efforts to oppose gay marriage. Last week, the church filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing to uphold the national Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning gay marriage that the church publicly supported.
Paul Mero, president of The Sutherland Institute, a conservative think-tank, said discussions about an anti-discrimination law have been going on for years, and said that the church’s representative and attorney on Capitol Hill keep " shooting the request up to the Quorum of The Twelve and First Presidency, trying to get them to agree to this."
So far, Mero said, his understanding is church leaders are not all in agreement, and the LGBT groups may have to give up too much to get the church’s support.
Mero said one of the sticking points is whether churches as institutions should be exempt from the discrimination ban, or if adherents to the faith should be, as well. Giving followers of the faith an exemption guts the bill.
Whatever the final bill looks like, Mero said his group will fight against it.
"We’ve opposed [the anti-discrimination law] since the beginning and we’re going to oppose it," he said. "It would be unfortunate to create a war among friends, but that’s exactly what will happen."