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Legislature may sit out same-sex debates during the session

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Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, says Republicans are ready and willing to pass sound legislation on air quality and campaign finance reform. He said any plans for a tax increases are probably DOA.

By Robert gehrke

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 27 2014 06:43PM
Updated Feb 28, 2014 08:39AM

Despite Utah’s distinction as the epicenter of the national debate on same-sex marriage, state legislative leaders say they are content this session to do nothing, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on the constitutionality of Utah’s ban on gay marriage.

That détente may mean the Legislature won’t act this year on a bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, seeking to prohibit housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns.

Already, there have been a handful of bills that have been introduced that deal, at least tangentially, with Utah’s Amendment 3, the statewide ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions, adopted by voters in 2004 by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

The amendment was struck down last month, however, in a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that allowed hundreds of Utah couples to wed before a stay was issued by the Supreme Court while the matter is being appealed.

But House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said it makes sense for the Legislature to take some time and wait for the courts to rule on Utah’s law.

"Let’s stand down a little bit and see what happens," she said. "I’m sensing that from a lot of members of the [Republican House] caucus."

Likewise, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said legislative leaders recognize they will almost certainly be able to put the issue off until next session, while courts deliberate.

"There’s a general feeling that might be the case. I think we feel like there’s probably at least another session before there’s going to be a Supreme Court ruling," said Niederhauser. "We can address a lot of these issues at a later session once everything is [resolved in the courts]."

Past sessions • If lawmakers do decide to punt on discrimination and marriage issues this year, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2010, leaders agreed to not push any new anti-discrimination legislation — or bills to repeal cities’ nondiscrimination ordinances — for a year until lawmakers had a grasp of how they were working.

This year, the idea of a moratorium has support on the Democratic side of the aisle, as well.

"I would hope that we would keep a cool head about ourselves and not come to legislation that might be very, very divisive before we know what the courts are going to declare," said Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City.

House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said attorneys in the House are cautioning that any new laws the House might pass may not be helpful and doing nothing may be the safest course.

"What we want to make sure of is that any bill that would be considered, we certainly wouldn’t want it to be a detriment to the state’s case as we see this thing working its way, probably, to the Supreme Court," said Hughes. "You could easily see a scenario where we don’t do anything."

Hughes said from his perspective the moratorium would also have to include taking a pass on Urquhart’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which Hughes said creates a new protected class of individuals.

Niederhauser said that including anti-discrimination in any truce for the 2014 session would "probably be part of the negotiation. It has to be part of it."

Separate issues? • But Urquhart says his bill is not the same as the several same-sex marriage bills that are being discussed at the Capitol.

"We can fight over same-sex marriage — and I think we’re going to fight over that for a while — but a majority of Utahns want to see my bill pass," said Urquhart. "I think that would be a positive step to say, ‘We’re not about hate, we’re not about discrimination.’ If it truly is about marriage, then let’s fight about marriage and let’s agree not to discriminate in employment and housing based on sexual orientation. These are not equivalents that should be swapped."

Brandie Balken, executive director of the group Equality Utah, hopes lawmakers wait on marriage issues, but it shouldn’t impede the discrimination bill. "I’m actually very hopeful that our legislators are really able to separate the issues of marriage equality and nondiscrimination," she said. "The courts have the issue of marriage equality in front of them and it seems like it it wouldn’t be wise to invest time or resources in trying to legislate that knowing that it’s in the court’s hands."

Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said the speaker told him recently that it was possible the Legislature wouldn’t consider any legislation relating to same-sex marriage this session.

Anderegg is sponsoring a constitutional amendment and a bill, both aimed at protecting individual religious liberties, including guaranteeing that churches or members of churches cannot be forced against their beliefs to conduct same-sex marriages.

"There is certainly some thought [we’re] jumping the gun and appearing to be reactionary at this point," said Anderegg, although he said both of his bills have well over two-thirds support in both the House and Senate.

"There is a group of attorneys in both bodies that are having discussions about what they feel is the best course to pursue, and the LDS Church and a couple other religious institutions are also weighing in," he said. "If the speaker and the president feel like it’s best for things not to go forward … it’s quite possible they’ll say, ‘Jake, we want to sit on these.’ And if they do, I’m not going to throw a big stink. That’s the game."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

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