Before the committee hearing on nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Utahns commenced, a TV reporter approached a gay man and asked if he had suffered discrimination for his lifestyle: “Who here hasn’t?” the man replied without pause. He was just one of dozens packed to hear Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, present his Senate Bill 262 at a senate committee Thursday.
Since 2008, lawmakers have been pushing a bill to extend to LGBT Utahns discrimination protections in housing and the workplace every session except for 2010. This session, by a one-vote margin, and thanks to conservative support from a senate committee, the bill for the first time was voted favorably out of a standing committee and will be heard for full debate on the Senate floor. Urquhart acknowledged that his SB 262 was a controversial bill for conservatives weary of giving special preference to LGBT Utahns, as well as those same LGBT citizens weary of living in a state where they can be evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In pitching his bill, Urquhart also acknowledged that he’s received a lot of “nasty” e-mails and phone calls for sponsoring and carrying the legislation this session.
“Because I’m sponsoring this, I’ve experienced a lot of love and some pretty intense hatred, and that really makes me think, because I’ve experienced that for about a week because of this issue,” Urquhart said. “We have a lot of people here experiencing [this] for a lifetime.”
The bill as Urquhart presented is similar to previous versions of the bill in that it extends discrimination protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The latter applies to people who may identify with a gender different than the gender they were born with, including transgender Utahns who have through treatment and operations changed their identity, or even those who only identify with another gender but have not undertaken any treatments. The bill offers exemptions for student dorms, religious organizations, and small businesses with 15 or fewer employees and landlords who own four rental units or less.
Critics of the bill, like Paul Mero, director of the conservative think tank The Sutherland Institute, blasted the bill as a “public relations” bill pushed by advocates playing on sympathies instead of sound policy to seek preferential treatment.
“But when you can’t win on its merits, all that’s left is an appeal to emotion. All that’s left is to ask legislators, ‘pretty please? – just let it be heard, just give me a Republican sponsor, can we have a floor vote, pretty please?,’” Mero said
While Urquhart did cite a University of Utah study citing 43 percent of gay Utahns and 67 percent of transgender Utahns reporting having experienced discrimination, few actually testified of personal discrimination at the hearing, arguing other considerations for the bill.
Mike Weinholtz, CEO of CHG Healthcare, a Utah company that employs 900, testified that Utah’s unaccepting climate hinders the company’s ability to recruit employees from out of state. Passing the bill, Weinholtz said, would signal that “Utah is open for business, and open to everyone.”
Salt Lake City Councilman Carlton Christensen said that since Salt Lake City passed its nondiscrimination ordinance in 2010 that the business community has not reported the ordinance as being “onerous,” and that they in fact welcomed the ordinance. Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, an openly gay lawmaker, did tell the anecdote of a woman who worked for Zion’s Bank and had told him that “I can’t put a picture of my family on my desk because I’m afraid that I will be fired.”
But in the story Dabakis told, Zion’s soon after enacted its own company policy against discrimination, a point seized upon by Eagle Forum head Gayle Ruzicka, who argued that cities and companies can deal with the issue on their own without the state government getting involved.
“We’re not passing a law that says communities can’t do this, and we’re not passing a law that says businesses can’t do this on their own,” Ruzicka argued.
It was a line of criticism shared by members of the committee, like Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who found no problem with the fact that 17 municipalities had enacted local nondiscrimination protections, but worried it wasn't appropriate for the Legislature to weigh in on.
“Sometimes, we come into the Legislature and try to override what should be taking place in the local communities,” Stevenson said. Urquhart countered that there was conformity, however, in state law about protecting against discrimination against Utahns based on other characteristics like race, religion, age and gender, among other standards.
Other arguments were harder to counter.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, argued that homosexual activity in his personal opinion was immoral and shouldn’t be supported by public policy.
“We do discriminate all the time as a society if we believe something is immoral,” Reid said, arguing that in his personal opinion homosexual activity was immoral. “As long as I feel that way, I cannot advance policy that frankly encourages the societal acceptance of [homosexual activities].”
Dabakis, in rebutting Reid’s point, argued the bill wasn’t about endorsing beliefs but protecting against discrimination.
“We’re not responsible for the moral beliefs of everybody,” Dabakis said. “We’re just trying to set the rules so everybody can have life, liberty and happiness.”
The committee agreed -- just barely -- passing the bill out by 4-3 vote. The bill will now go to the Senate floor for full debate. The bill grabbed “yes” votes from Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, and Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, as well as Sen. Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, and Sen. Paul Knudson, R-Brigham City.
To read SB 262, click here. To contact Urquhart about his bill, click here. To find your legislator and contact them about this bill, click here. For more updates from the Hil,l follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.