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LGBT Rights in Utah



Wednesday Utah passed a law declaring there shall be no discrimination in housing or employment based on gender identity or sexual orientation, giving better civil rights to the LGBT community. The law is referred to as the “Utah Compromise.” It has taken seven years for LGBT groups, lawmakers, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to come together on this issue. The final vote was 65-10 in the Utah House of Representatives and 23-5 in the Senate.  Opponents to the bill says it is limited to employment and housing for the LGBT community, but does not do enough to protect religious rights.

The bill was presented by State Representative & Republican Brad Dee with co-sponsors (Utah Senate Majority Whip, Republican) and Senator Steve Urquhart (R). Dee wept as he announced that “There was a lot of people and a lot of faith that went into this particular bill…” Utah’s GLBT community and the Utah-based Mormon Church worked together to write this bill. The president of the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Chad Griffin said it was an, “incredible and collaborative victory.” Equality Utah, the state’s gay advocacy group said LGBT protections “can gracefully coexist with the rights of people of faith.”

S.B. 296 does in fact have exemptions. Religious institutions, associations, organizations, are exempt from being referred to as employers. The bill allows expression of religious beliefs as well as the commitments that come with religion in the workplace, if they are reasonable, do not disrupt the order of things and do not harass other employees. However, the bill does not deal with the ability to deny services to those in the LGBT community based on religious beliefs, as being discriminatory.

The endorsement of the Church of Latter-Day Saints moved the bill through legislation quicker, as 60 percent of Utah identify themselves as Mormons. However, the bill did not please everyone. State Representative Jeremy Peterson (R) questioned if the pro-LGBT wording of the Utah Fair Housing Act was necessary. Peterson, is member of the Latter-Day Saints church and a landlord who has rented to members of the LGBT community and never had an issues with the way he has handled things.

Wednesday night the Utah House of Representatives chose to advance another bill, H.B. 322, with a section titled the Religious Liberty Act. This bill allows people to not have to be a part of government acts which would take away the rights of lawful expression and religious liberty whether in private or in public. Essentially reversing any rights given to people who are LGBT in Utah. However, the House was warned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah that this bill could overshadow the good done in S.B.296.

In an effort to cause complete confusion of Utah residents, a Senate committee approved a bill allowing state government officials the right to refuse to marry same-sex couples, but ONLY if they gave up their right to also marry straight couples. Actually, all religious affiliated groups are exempt from the anti-discriminatory law. Not just churches, but companies owned or are affiliates of religious groups as well. This includes the Boy Scouts of America, Brigham Young University, Beneficial Life Insurance or the Desert News, these companies are exempt from the anti-discrimination law. If a member of the LGBT community works for any of these organizations, their rights become limited as they are not protected by the anti-discrimination law.

Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed S.B. 296 into law Thursday, giving rights to members of the LGBT community in Utah, during a ceremony full of people in the rotunda of the state capitol building.  Normally, the Governor would sign bills after the lawmakers’ session has closed.

However, not everyone agrees with this new legislation. It can be argued that gay, straight, transgender one should not have to seek out civil rights protection, it is in fact a civil right given to all. The LGBT community is a part of “the people” in the Constitution. On the other side of the spectrum, there are 32 states, mostly Republican run, in the Mountain West and the South that do not go out of their way to prevent employers from harassing or firing members of the LGBT community, however, it is estimated that 15 to 43 percent of LGBT workers have felt discriminated against at some point at work.

People are fearful that the Utah Compromise will cause the expansion of LGBT rights, while also leaving religious groups exempt, continuing discriminatory treatment by religious groups. The LGBT community just wants the same rights everyone else has without having to fight to be respected. However, Utah is the only state that the Mormon Church has any political pull. It is possible that Utah will be singled out in the exemptions of religious groups from any anti-discriminatory laws.

The bill includes enhanced protection for religious speech. This could mean it would be appropriate to berate a transgender peer or a business owner refusing service to a gay person. No LGBT person is exempt, truly from discrimination by religious groups. Eric Ethington is a journalist and the communications director for Political Research Associates. This is a liberal group that monitors religious rights. Ethington wonders what difference the protections make if you create an atmosphere that can remove those protections at any moment? Has the LGBT community gained any rights in Utah?

North Dakota, the nation’s second highest rate of religious adherence being at about 67 percent, is not feeling the same need to make religious organizations exempt from their anti-discrimination bill that has already been passed by the state Senate. Representative Joshua Boschee (D) is leading the effort for the bill to pass in the predominately Republican state House of Representatives. North Dakota’s bill will protect members of the LGBT community, whereas, Utah protects the Mormon Church.

By Jeanette Smith


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