The Battle Over ‘Religious Freedoms’ May Be Far From Over on Utah’s Capitol Hill

State Rep. LaVar Christensen has been working on enhancing religious freedoms through law in the Utah Legislature for years.

He’s watched other state legislatures act on the subject – while Utah didn’t.

Wednesday night, Christensen, R-Draper, got half a victory: The House passed his HB322, as amended several times in its bumpy journey through the Legislature this year, 52-21.

As the media and others concentrated on SB296 – the historic bill that provides anti-discrimination in housing and employment for gays and lesbians while providing some religious freedom guarantees in jobs and housing, Christensen’s much broader HB322 sat in the shadows.

As this story is written, HB322 must still get through the Senate, on this last day of the 45-day general session.

But Christensen is hopeful.

And he’s motivated – for in their rare press conference at the first of this session – LDS Church leaders talked long and strong about how individual’s and group’s religious freedoms need to be protected today, as various groups attack those of faith for expressing their religion.

Christensen says HB322, as passed by the House, “closes the circle” already laid by SB296 and SB297 (which exempts some government officials from marrying gay couples).

But there is an interesting metamorphosis of HB322 as it moved through various stages – one of which would have placed in law that an “individual” or “group” could sue – and get the opposing party to pay your attorney fees — if in expressing your religious beliefs you suffered economic harm (your “goods” were damaged).

In other words, if you expressed in public or before your employees your religious beliefs, and then a boycott came against you, you could sue the individual or group that brought that boycott against you and collect under that version of HB322.

HB322, as passed by the House, is here – it does NOT contain the “goods” provision.

The version of HB322 that included “goods” and actions against a person’s or firm’s “goods” is here.

You can read SB296 here – which also has nothing to do with bringing a lawsuit against an individual or group if they organize a boycott against you over your religious beliefs.

Christensen said he originally sought to provide clarification in state law over religious freedoms, the expression because of that while offering some protections for a person’s “sex-related interests.”

But after SB296 came along, says Christensen, he didn’t need to deal in any way with gays and lesbians and their rights in rewritten versions of HB322.

So he took out “goods,” “sex-related interests,” among other things.

But if one listened carefully to the LDS Church leaders’ press conference earlier this session, you heard time and again church leaders say that the hateful, harsh statements against people as they express their right of religious conscience and expression somehow needs to be curtailed, for it breeds unhelpful societal breaks, as well as violations of the individual’s religious expression.

Christensen may hope that his rewritten HB322 that passed the House could help in some way.

So, while Christensen hopes the Senate will pass his HB322, and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will sign it, an examination of previous versions of the bill may point the way to future legislative debates on how the state can protect individual and group against actions aimed at harming the business of a person who speaks out on religious issues.

In short, the issue of individual and group religious freedom expression may not be over in Utah.