The national firestorm pouring down on Arizona could have easily been focused on Utah if the Legislature hadn’t shelved a similar bill pitting gay rights against religious freedom, according to the sponsor, Sen. Stuart Reid.
But Reid, R-Ogden, said that, even after he leaves the Legislature at the end of the year, Utah will have to deal with the issue, because protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns cannot exist alongside religious liberty.
"I would have anticipated that here in this state, as well," Reid said in an interview. "The LGBT community can’t afford for religious rights to be defined and protected in that way, in the way Arizona is now doing it."
Reid introduced a trio of bills early in the session, including one that mirrors the religious freedom bill passed by the Arizona Legislature. That bill is awaiting a signature — or veto — from Gov. Jan Brewer amid a barrage of criticism that it would let people and businesses refuse service to gay Arizonans based on their religious belief.
Conventions have threatened to boycott Arizona in the wake of passage of the bill and several Fortune 500 companies, the state’s two U.S. senators, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and even some legislators who voted for the bill are now urging Brewer’s veto.
But with Utah appealing a federal court ruling striking down its ban on same-sex marriage, legislative leaders decided to punt, not just on Reid’s bills, but on SB100, Sen. Steve Urquhart’s bill prohibiting employment and housing discrimination against LGBT individuals.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of the Utah Legislature, said the state dodged a bullet by shelving Reid’s bill.
"All the ridicule and all the embarrassment and all the stupidity that Arizona is now facing … that is a genie that can’t be put in the bottle," he said. "Arizona is going to continue to look weird and dumb and stupid and Utah came this close to leading the way."
Dabakis said he was offered a deal last year to pass a statewide non-discrimination ordinance if it incorporated language like Arizona’s allowing people to discriminate based on religious beliefs, but he refused.
"I think it saved the state this tremendous embarrassment of being the goofball capital of the country," Dabakis said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said there is a "distinct chance" that Utah could have ended up in the same situation as Arizona, which could have hurt the state’s marriage appeal.
"It could have happened here," he said. "It really highlights that I think we’ve done the right thing."
Niederhauser said he expects the Legislature to study the religious-liberty issue during the summer and possibly address it next year.
Reid said it has to happen sometime, because there is an irreconcilable tension between religious liberty and LGBT rights.
"They can’t coexist because for people of religious conscience, it is a fundamental issue and for the LGBT community it’s an issue of creating a protected class," Reid said.
Reid said there is not real discrimination against LGBT individuals — Salt Lake City has reported just three complaints since it passed its ordinance in 2009, all dismissed. But Reid said that, when individuals are forced to provide services or accommodate a gay marriage "it can become an affront to religious conscience."
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