Utah Passes LGBT-Inclusive Antidiscrimination Bill, Religious Exemptions

Utah Passes LGBT-Inclusive Antidiscrimination Bill, Religious Exemptions

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert tonight signed a landmark LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination bill into law, but the state’s legislature has delivered some less positive news to LGBT Utahans as well.

Senate Bill 296, which cleared its final legislative hurdle Wednesday, bans employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. The state House passed the bill 65-10, after the Senate approved it last week. Herbert signed it in a ceremony at the state capitol this evening, surrounded by LGBT activists and a bipartisan group of legislators. Utah becomes the 19th state to ban discrimination on both grounds.

“It is a landmark,” Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow told The New York Times. “This is a Republican-controlled legislature with a Republican governor, and this will be the first time that a Republican-controlled process has led to extension of protections for LGBT people.”

It’s also a landmark coming in a state dominated by a church that frowns on homosexuality. Some 60 percent of Utah residents and more than 80 percent of state lawmakers are members of the Mormon Church, known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, notes the Tribune.

The new antidiscrimination law had the backing of the Mormon Church because of its broad religious exemption. It exempts religious organizations and their affiliates, such as colleges and charities, in addition to the Boy Scouts of America. It also would protect employees from being fired for discussing their religious beliefs at work, as long as such discussion does not become disruptive or reach the level of harassment.

Meanwhile, the Senate today passed a bill that would allow employees in county clerks’ offices to opt out of performing marriages for same-sex couples. It also bars the government from penalizing individuals or businesses that refuse to perform same-sex weddings or provide accommodations for them. As the measure, Senate Bill 297, has already passed the House, it now also goes to Herbert for his signature.

That bill had the reluctant support of LGBT rights group Equality Utah, which initially was worried that it would undermine the new antidiscrimination law. “On principle, we don’t love the idea of clerks opting out, but we do recognize the extent that Senator Adams has made at expanding opportunities for LGBT couples to access marriage services throughout the state,” executive director Troy Williams told the Tribune, referring to Sen. Stuart Adams, the bill’s sponsor.

Adams had originally sought to let elected officials such as mayors or the governor opt out of performing marriages altogether so they would not have to marry same-sex couples, but then he agreed to limit the bill to employees of clerks’ offices. They can opt out as long as there is another employee in the office or under contract who can perform the marriage, he told the Tribune.

“Every single county must provide for every single couple that comes to their county clerk office and has a valid marriage license and provide someone to marry them,” added Sen. Jim Dabakis, who is gay.

The Mormon Church’s willingness to get behind antidiscrimination protections, even with strong religious exemptions, did not sit well with some other conservative faith groups. It “is not the right strategy,” Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told The New York Times.

“Christians and other religious people working in the marketplace are not really addressed in terms of their freedom of conscience,” he added. “I don’t think this will be a model.”

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