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Utah Legislature: Lawmakers do away with gay rights bills

Rep. Christine Johnson listens to Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups talk about the  moratorium on gay rights bills.
Rep. Christine Johnson listens to Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups talk about the moratorium on gay rights bills.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — No means no.

Not only will no gay rights-related bills be considered this session, but Senate Republicans on Friday scrapped an interim study on the need for anti-discrimination protections.

After a closed-door caucus, the majority party also backed down from imposing a threatened moratorium on any new local government anti-discrimination ordinance, a proposal GOP Gov. Gary Herbert did not support.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said lawmakers will wait and see what happens with ordinances recently passed by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.

"Our citizens shouldn't be doing things that are discriminatory. If they are, that's information we'll gather next year that will push legislation," Waddoups said.

But he also had a warning for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

"If the LGBT community are doing offensive activities in a public setting, that will push legislation in the other direction," he said. "We need to be respectful of one another; we all need to all figure out how to live together."

Waddoups said he wanted to avoid any legislation dealing with gay rights next session, either for or against. "I'm a firm believer congeniality is the best avenue."

Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, one of two openly gay members of the Legislature, accepted the decision to do away with the interim study she was co-sponsoring with Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

"I am very hopeful this sets a precedent for us being able to have a dialogue on these issues rather than a heated battle," Johnson said. She said Friday's decision shouldn't stop the public from letting lawmakers know what they want.

"I would say there's a sense of impatience. But a moratorium on bills in no way denotes a moratorium on public opinion or lobbying," Johnson said. "I want to be clear, this is not intended to discourage the public process over the next year."

The interim study was a key piece of a compromise announced a week ago by Johnson and Stephenson that was intended to stop bills going forward on both sides of the issue, including Johnson's own effort to pass a state law similar to the city and county ordinances.

But the GOP Senate caucus balked at taking a closer look at whether the state should offer the same housing and employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County do. House Republicans have let the Senate GOP take the lead on the issue.

The city and county recently passed anti-discrimination ordinances that were supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Lawmakers were asked by the LDS Church to not overturn the ordinances.

That gave the predominantly Mormon lawmakers pause, especially in an election year for most of them. Some legislators had been looking to undo the ordinances; others, especially Waddoups, wanted to prevent other local governments from following suit.

That's something that Herbert made clear he opposed Friday. In an interview with the Deseret News, the governor, a former Utah County commissioner, said those decisions should be left up to local officials.

They "know what's best for their own backyard and they very seldom need oversight by the state Big Brother government," Herbert said. "I don't support a moratorium (on local government ordinances). It's not something that I think does anybody any good."

The governor said he "felt the strong arm of the state telling me what to do as a county commissioner" and suggested lawmakers were attempting to micromanage.

"We rail against the federal government and then we turn around and do the same thing to our local governments from the state level," he said.

Herbert did support the interim study that was part of the original truce.

"The issue becomes very emotional for people on all sides," he said. "So having a cooling-off period, as it were, and having an in-depth study of it so we have some research that says, here are the real facts and the data, it's not just an anecdotal story, I thought showed some wisdom."