House Republicans pass anti-DEI bill that would dismantle diversity offices in Utah public education, government

The contentious measure, HB261, will move next to the Senate for a vote.

A controversial bill to unravel diversity programs across all of public education and government in Utah — one of the most far-reaching of any such measure in the nation — was pushed through the House on Friday, even as the sponsor acknowledged “I can’t say I have data” to support the measure.

The Republican-led proposal was approved on a 58-14 party line vote that came during the body’s final floor time of the first week of what’s already shaped up to be a legislative session zeroed in on underrepresented communities in the state.

HB261 is expected to keep up that fast pace as it moves to the Senate next week.

“This opens the door to all Utahns to not be judged by a group or identity, but to look at the individual and all that an individual encompasses in their life experiences,” said Rep. Katy Hall, R-South Ogden, who is white and the sponsor of the bill.

Despite heavy opposition from every Democrat in the House — as well as many individuals and educators of color who have spoken out — HB261 has been buoyed by Utah’s dominant conservative lawmakers and supported by Gov. Spencer Cox.

The wide-sweeping proposal would reframe diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, offices at the state’s eight public colleges and universities — as well as at public K-12 schools and in any government institution within Utah. The bill prohibits offices from engaging in “differential treatment” or preference based on race or gender. In higher education, DEI programs would be required to shift to more generalized “student success and support” centers open to everyone.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, Utah’s only Black lawmaker and minority assistant whip, paced the room Friday during part of the debate. Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who is Latina, held her face in her hands.

“I’m afraid that we’re erasing people. We’re erasing identities. We’re erasing experiences,” Romero said. “I want to remind my colleagues, there’s unintentional consequences when we try to sweep things and say we’re all the same. It’s not a level playing field.”

Romero spoke about finding support when she was a student at the University of Utah at what was then called the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs. When she experienced racism, she said, because of the color of her skin, she knew: “I had a place I could go to where I felt safe.”

It’s also because of that center, she said, that she got her first legislative internship in 1994 and then became a lawmaker.

She questioned Republican lawmakers using the terms diversity, equity and inclusion to support HB261, while the bill bans those in campus offices. Some conservative leaders had argued the bill would help encourage a more diverse community by welcoming everyone. Hall said she hopes people will be judged by their ability, hard work and talent, rather than their race or gender.

Hall has said and repeated Friday that it wouldn’t close cultural centers or defund scholarships, even though the language of the bill does appear to specifically target those. The measure does explicitly ban schools and government agencies from having any offices that use any of the terms “diversity, equity or inclusion” in their titles.

One Democrat said society isn’t post-racial at this point, and racism still guides decisions and interactions in education, government hiring and everyday life. He mentioned his Latina daughter-in-law being stopped at the airport with her two kids and being questioned if she was trafficking them “because they don’t look like you.” He mentioned a Black man pulled over by a police officer in Salt Lake City, who was told, “You don’t look like you should be driving a car this nice.”

Minority Whip Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, asked Hall for numbers or audits “that demonstrates quantitatively, with evidence, about the positives or negatives of DEI programs in the state of Utah” that would show a need for the bill.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, left, speaks with Rep. Brett Garner, D-West Valley City, on a substitute to HB 261 on the House floor at the Capitol, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

Hall responded: “I can’t say I have data for or against.” She said, instead, she’s heard from students and professors who feel stifled, like they can’t express their views and “are afraid to speak up” because they don’t fit in certain ideologies or offices.

“That’s a claim that’s not backed by facts or data. That’s an opinion,” countered Dailey-Provost, who has worked in health care, offering numbers to show her concern that existing health disparities, including a higher maternal mortality rate for Black women, would be exacerbated by eliminating DEI programs throughout the state.

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, who is a family physician, also said he agrees with concerns about the possible impacts of the bill on public health programs meant to address disparities. That could include the Utah Department of Health’s Office of Health Equity. When asked about the potential impact of the bill on that office, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said they are still studying what HB261 would affect. And Ward voted in favor of the measure Friday.

The back-and-forth continued for an hour, with one Democrat proposing a substitute that removed K-12 and government offices from the bill. That motion failed. He also suggested holding the bill so it could be studied. That, too, did not pass.

“Let’s take a step back and ensure what we’re doing is right,” said Rep. Brett Garner, D-West Valley City, who is white but who represents the only minority-majority city in the state.

Republicans, though, insisted the bill supports all students and residents, rather than dividing individuals.

“We need to make sure we are supporting all students who are in need,” said Majority Whip Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who said that includes students from lower socioeconomic statuses who may be white. “What this bill does is it says we want to treat all people equal. If we believe the Civil Rights Act was a good thing, and we want to end racism and intolerance in Utah and in America, then vote for this bill.”

The bill additionally would ban public colleges, K-12 schools and government offices from asking job applicants for a statement about their beliefs on diversity or inclusion and could lose state funding for violating that. And schools and government offices would be required to eliminate any training on “discriminatory practices” while replacing that with instruction on free speech from all viewpoints.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, presents a substitute to HB 261 on the House floor at the Capitol, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024.

There are exceptions in the bill for federal requirements and grants around diversity.

House Speaker Mike Schultz spoke to reporters about HB261 before the vote and also said he thinks the measure encourages more diversity.

“The biggest thing that we want to move away from is creating the divisions,” he said. “You now have these groups that are being divided up, fighting against each other in many cases.”

He later added: “Why divide? Why not unify? I really think that’s the way forward, unifying our communities.”

Hall added the sees the bill as “common sense policies” and urged Utahns to work on a personal level to end racism.

— Tribune reporters Emily Anderson Stern and Bryan Schott contributed to this story.