SALT LAKE CITY — An executive for a well-known, successful company says potential out-of-state hires typically want to know if Utah is tolerant.
Utah, said 1-800-CONTACTS vice president Jay Maguire, is a warm and welcoming place. "But that's not always our public perception."
A statewide nondiscrimination law would change how the state is viewed and help businesses attract the best people as well as grow and expand, Maguire said. Not only is it the right thing to do, he said, it would show Utahns' true character "and that is their tolerance."
Ancestry.com president and CEO Tim Sullivan and eBay general counsel Brandon Pace expressed the same views Thursday at a panel discussion about a proposed statewide nondiscrimination law to be introduced in the 2012 Legislature.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake, would prohibit discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It would also protect political speech and activity, including donating money for or against initiatives such as Proposition 8, the controversial failed 2008 ballot measure that would have legalized gay marriage in California.
"You should be able to bring your religious views to the public square without threat of termination," McAdams said.
All legislators were invited to the discussion and several showed up, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, who questioned the need for such a law.
"Why not make a law that says we don't discriminate against Jewish women, females, over the age of 50?" he asked the panel.
"You're looking at sexual orientation like it's something special. Maybe in your mind it is," he said. "In my mind, you're picking a special activity and creating a class of people out of that."
The comment clearly upset freshman Rep. Brian Doughty, D-Salt Lake, the Utah Legislature's only openly gay member.
Doughty said his sexual orientation is not an activity. "It's who I am."
Despite the uncomfortable exchange, McAdams called the meeting a "momentous occasion" because Utah is having a public discussion about the issue.
Proposed nondiscrimination laws have failed in the Legislature for four years. McAdams couldn't get his bill out of committee last year. This year he has the support of a Republican Rep. Derek Brown of Salt Lake. The Salt Lake Chamber lists the bill as a top priority.
Salt Lake City passed Utah’s first nondiscrimination ordinance in 2009 with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since then, 13 other cities and counties have adopted similar policies, with Harrisville in Weber County being the latest Tuesday.
"I don't think these laws were made to change the attitude of Utah. I think they were made to reflect the attitude of Utah. We don't discriminate," McAdams said.
University of Utah law professor Clifford Rosky said there are some misunderstandings about what the Utah law would do. "The bill does not make gay and transgender people a protected class or give them special rights," he said.
Ancestry.com, eBay and 1-800-CONTACTS all have nondiscrimination policies.
Sullivan said Provo-based Ancestry.com recruits people from all over the world. The company, he said, has a diverse workforce and stands for inclusion.
"We will succeed or not succeed by the quality of the talent we bring to the company," he said.
Pace said eBay, which is expanding in Utah, said it's difficult dealing with a patchwork of nondiscrimination ordinances across the state. One law, he said, would bring predictability and uniformity.
"We want people to feel great about working here," he said.