Non-Discrimination and Religious Liberty Bill Unveiled

It was a monumental moment in Utah politics, but one also for the worldwide LDS Church, as its leaders try to show their compassion for gays and lesbians after the public relations disaster of Prop 8 in California several years ago.

The packed Gold Room in the Utah State Capitol saw something not seen in recent history: Two members of the LDS Church’s Quorum of The Twelve at a public press conference supporting a bill not-yet-passed by the Utah Legislature.

Church leaders – namely general authorities — have come to Capitol press conferences before, but never a member of the Quorum of The Twelve, much less two.

As Elders L. Tom Perry and D. Todd Christofferson walked to their places, media photographers and many of those attending rushed forward to take their pictures.

This was one for the record books.

The message couldn’t have been more clear: The LDS Church supports the new gay/lesbian anti-discrimination bill, HB296 – unveiled Wednesday – as long as it has specific religious freedom language, and expects it to pass before lawmakers adjourn next Thursday.

But beyond that – as several speakers said Wednesday at the event – it is time for Mormons and gay and lesbian rights supporters to take a breathe, realize both are people of good faith, and try to work together for a better Utah and nation.

Still, one had to wonder, when was the last time two members of the Twelve sat an arm’s length away as a leader of the gay community – in this case Troy Williams of Equality Utah – talked about how as a young LDS missionary he felt lost and alone in a world that he didn’t understand, and that didn’t understand him.

There was much talk of healing and of good will Wednesday, a few speeches choked with emotion.

Now comes the politics.

SB296 goes to a Senate hearing Thursday morning, then to floor votes in the Senate, then (it is almost impossible to believe it could fail in the Senate) to the Utah House.

There may be a few votes against it by archconservative lawmakers.

After all, Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah Eagle Forum, told UtahPolicy just before the press conference that she “totally is against it, totally.”

But those will likely be in the minority.

History was made Wednesday – and few Utah legislators will want to be on the wrong side of that.

Still, SB296 must be dissected and examined before the legislative votes come.

Here are some facts about it:

— “Gender identity” and “sexual orientation” cannot be reasons for discrimination in housing and employment.

— Religious organizations and their affiliates and the Boy Scouts of America are exempt from the bill’s provisions. (More on the Boy Scouts later in this story.)

— Individuals can speak their minds, at work and elsewhere, about their religion and their religious beliefs without being discriminated against themselves.

— Employers can make “reasonable” demands of their employees in dress and actions concerning sexual orientation and gender identity.

— But at the same time, homosexuals and transgender people can expect “reasonable” accommodations from their employers, including restrooms, showers and other such items.

— The bill applies to any business that has more than 15 employees, any property owner who has four or more rental units.

The bill – as reported previously by UtahPolicy – does NOT apply to any other public accommodations. So the issue of a Mormon florist refusing to provide flowers at a gay marriage, and being subject to a civil suit, is not covered in the bill.

Perry noted that it was 150 years ago that Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address. And Perry quoted from that speech, saying now is the time to go forward with “malice toward none,” and “charity for all.”

Sister Neill F. Marriott, second counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, said the nation is in a “great debate” about family, marriage “and our collective rights and religious freedoms.”

The nation is polarized over religious rights and gay rights, she said. But this does not need be the case, as SB296 shows.

In the bill, said Christofferson, “We acknowledge no side may get all they want.” But there could be no “winner take all,” or the bill would not work.

Some may be critical of it, he added. But he said it came about through true statesmanship, “with compassion and fairness” and the accommodation “of the rights of all people.”

The bill has two Senate sponsors, Sens. Stuart Adams, the Senate majority whip, R-Layton, and Steve Urquhart, R-St. George.

Urquhart has pushed the gay and lesbian anti-discrimination bill in housing and employment for several years.

But only after LDS Church leaders called a press conference the second day of the 2015 Legislature to say they backed such an anti-discrimination bill IF it included some religious liberty guarantees, did Urquhart’s effort really take off.

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake, the only openly-gay member of the 104-member Legislature, also worked hard on the bill and was recognized Wednesday.

Said Dabakis: “I’m very, very proud to be a Utahn today. May heart is filled.”

He and several other speakers said this is not just a great moment for Utah, but for the United States.

Adams said Utah is a very conservative state, and if in Utah such a compromise over gay rights and religious freedom can be reached, such compromises can be reached anywhere in the nation.

In fact, several said SB296 could and should, be model legislation for other states.

About two dozen local Utah cities and counties have gay anti-discrimination ordinances – first backed by the LDS Church several years ago in Salt Lake City.

Urquhart said should SB296 pass, it will overreach those local ordinances.  But one could expect a number of local governments to pass something like SB296 – to show their own respect for gays and lesbians and for religious freedoms.

Williams said there are 55,000 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Utah.

And as a 20-year-old LDS missionary he couldn’t even dream of a day like Wednesday. “I didn’t know about any of this. I was just a scared, gay Utahn” who couldn’t have imagined a day when he, as a leader in the gay community, would be standing next to LDS Church leaders and see protections for gay rights.

Williams said it has been hard on his “Mormon father” to see his gay son in the media recently. But his father taught him “the best of Mormon values” – to always mourn with those in mourning, and comfort those who needed comfort and to carry the burdens of others.

“Those values are deep into who I am today.”

“And I can declare that this is our place; this is our home,” Williams said.

Two items of note:

— Urquhart said that neither the local nor national Boy Scout councils asked to be exempted from the bill. He did it, Urquhart said, because a U.S. Supreme Court decision specifically said that the Boy Scouts did not have to include gay leaders in their work.

It was not mentioned that the LDS Church is one of the nation’s biggest Boy Scout supporters, with nearly all local Mormon congregations having Boy Scout troops. Becoming an Eagle Scout is a big deal in the LDS society, which does not equally support the Girl Scouts, who are not mentioned in the bill.

Exempting the Boy Scouts in the bill means the organization does not have to hire or house gays and lesbians, and homosexuals can still be banned from leading Boy Scout troops.

— Urquhart said that he couldn’t give an exact reference where LDS Church representatives suggested language was included in the bill.

However, he said church leaders – along with a whole lot of other folks, including “national” attorneys expert in these matters – did make specific language suggestions.

He said LDS Church leaders were especially interested in the bill areas concerning religious organizations and their affiliates and how housing in those areas was treated – “the LDS Church would have had significant involvement in that.”

“But we had many wordsmiths” looking at the bill, and no wording was included that didn’t see amendments “10 or 20 times,” said Urquhart.

Various groups sent out emails in support of SB296 throughout the day Wednesday, including national gay and lesbian rights groups.

One archconservative Utah House member told UtahPolicy that all that was fine, “but did they give us something (in SB296) that we can support” in the conservative movement? He asked.

That question will be answered over the next week.