LDS Church Voices Support for Non-Discrimination, Religious Liberty Bills (UPDATED)

LDS Church leaders Tuesday morning gave indications they support two controversial bills – antidiscrimination for gays and lesbians in housing and employment and religious freedom enhancements, both now before the Utah Legislature.

It’s a game-changer for both those issues – as legislators have for several years refused to pass Sen. Steve Urquhart’s anti-discrimination bill.

And last year lawmakers refused to discuss both the Urquhart bill and one by Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, aimed at ensuring that religions and religious leaders did not have to endorse or conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies.

Just after the 20-minute church news conference, UtahPolicy talked to Urquhart, R-St. George.

“Absolutely this is an endorsement of my bill,” said Urquhart, who was clearly happy by the church leader’s announcement.

“There is only one bill up here providing statewide protections for gays and lesbians in housing and employment, and that is mine,” he said.

His “bill will pass,” Urquhart predicted.

In a 10 a.m. press conference from the LDS Church Conference Center that was carried live on several radio and TV stations, and live-streamed, Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffery R. Holland, both members of the Quorum of the Twelve, outlined and better defined the church’s official stand on those two issues.

It is not unusual for church leaders to talk in broad terms. And neither man specifically referred to the Urquhart or Anderegg bills, either by name or number.

But the implications – at least by lawmakers UtahPolicy quickly talked to on the Hill – is that the green light is lit to deeply discuss both measures this session.

And should either bill pass, it would not be opposed by LDS Church leaders.

In 2009 LDS Church leaders endorsed a proposed Salt Lake City ordinance, which passed, that outlawed discrimination for gays and lesbians in housing and employment.

Since that time two dozen local cities and counties have passed similar laws.

But legislators have refused to pass such a gay anti-discrimination law statewide, and various LDS officials have said publicly that perhaps local government actions are enough.

The local-only preference was NOT mentioned by church leaders Tuesday morning.

In fact, Oaks – a former justice in the Utah Supreme Court who is seen as the Twelve’s leader in religious freedom issues – called on local officials to protect vital religious freedoms of individuals, families and all faith groups.

But Oaks then added that the rights of LGBT citizens should be protected in “housing, employment, public accommodations and restaurants,” protections that are not available in may parts of the United States.

While not a specific endorsement of Urquhart’s SB100, it’s darn close – and is being taken by Urquhart and his supporters that now is the time to pass a statewide law ensuring the rights that LDS leaders support.

Urquhart praised his church’s actions Tuesday (his is a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has held lay callings in his church.)

“Today is a significant step forward by the LDS Church and the LGBT community,” Urquhart added.

Meanwhile, Oaks and Holland time and again talked about the rights of individuals, families and groups to practice their religion they way their wish, without harassment from other people – and especially government – must be protected.

Oaks listed several instances where those who spoke against gay rights were “bullied,” harassed and even driven from their jobs and public office.

That is wrong, said Oaks. And people with deeply held religious believes – even if those beliefs are opposed by the gay community – should be respected.

Bigotry is bigotry, and should be opposed in every instance, said Oaks.

Some of Oaks’ warnings of religious people being harmed for their beliefs are aimed at Anderegg’s HB66, which details how religious leaders can’t be forced to perform same-sex marriages, and his HJR5, a proposed state constitutional amendment that would protect religious rights and liberties.

Some have claimed that neither HB66 nor HJR5 are necessary – since other constitutional rights and laws provide these protections.

But comments by both Holland and Oaks on Tuesday appear to differ, as both men said time and again that religious liberties are under attack as never before in the U.S., and indeed around the world, and steps must be taken to further protect them.

Anderegg took a much more measured response, saying most legislators didn’t get a chance to see the press conference (they were in committees) and he has to consider different options for his bills.

In fact, Anderegg said there could be several alternatives to his HJR5 that he’d be willing to consider.

On his HB66 he held a “protected” amendment in his hand, one which says if a county clerk employee has personal religious beliefs that would stop them from issuing a marriage license to a gay couple, then another clerk employee must issue the license.

Asked if his bills will pass – Urquhart said his would – Anderegg said it will be up to his legislative colleagues.

Asked if he would accept Urquhart’s antidiscrimination language being put into his HB66, he said he doesn’t favor that now.

Actually, Urquhart – using an interesting Socratic method – has been rather harsh on Anderegg on social media. And while Anderegg said he’s willing to work with Urquhart and anyone else, he wonder if the senator wanted to work with him.

“I’ve been getting a lot of barbs” from Urquhart, said Anderegg.

   In the 2014 Legislature, GOP leaders – and the Senate Republican caucus – declined to hear any same-sex marriage, antidiscrimination or religious liberties bills – saying it was best to wait to see what the U.S. Supreme Court decided on Utah’s and other states’ same-sex marriage appeals.

At first, the high court last October declined to take any of the cases. But since then one appellate court ruled against same-sex marriage and now the court will hear the issue this spring.

There were rumors circling the Legislature this week that GOP leaders may, again, put off the Urquhart and Anderegg bills, waiting for the high court decision.

But that appears unlikely now that LDS leaders have spoken in favor of action – and tolerance by citizens — on both those measures.