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Religious freedom, nondiscrimination bills to resurface at Utah Legislature

GOP legislative leaders put the brakes on bills related to marriage and nondiscrimination earlier this year, but with Monday's U.S. Supreme Court decision, some lawmakers intend to bring back that legislation.
GOP legislative leaders put the brakes on bills related to marriage and nondiscrimination earlier this year, but with Monday's U.S. Supreme Court decision, some lawmakers intend to bring back that legislation.
Elise Amendola, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican legislative leaders slammed the brakes on bills related to marriage and nondiscrimination earlier this year, saying they didn't want political rhetoric to hurt Utah's appeal in the same-sex marriage case.

But with the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting the state's petition — making gay marriage legal in Utah based on a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling — some lawmakers are moving full-speed ahead with legislation for the 2015 session.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, intends to again run his bill for a statewide law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"It's nice to have resolution to that," Urquhart said of the same-sex marriage issue. "Now it's time to move forward, including consideration of the nondiscrimination bill."

The measure cleared a Senate committee in 2013 but was not discussed this year.

Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he will bring back a proposed law and a resolution for a constitutional amendment that would exempt clergy, state and local government officials and judges from having to solemnize marriages that go against their religious beliefs.

"The First Amendment needs to be upheld. My concern is that they've used the 14th Amendment to quash 10th Amendment rights," he said. "At what point do they start using the 14th Amendment to quash First Amendment rights?"

Anderegg said the bill is necessary now that the Supreme Court has allowed the 10th Circuit decision to stand. It wouldn't deny same-sex couples the right to marry, but they would have to find someone who doesn't have a religious objection to conduct the ceremony, he said.

"I don't think anybody should be compelled to do something that they have a religious objection to specific to marriage," Anderegg said.

Cliff Rosky, a University of Utah law professor and Equality Utah board member, said he agrees with the piece of Anderegg's bill dealing with clergy. But he said exempting government officials and judges would violate the First and 14th Amendments.

"The scope of it is breathtaking, and the very principle behind it is a violation of the Establishment Clause. It allows each judge and state official to establish their own religion in the performance of their official governmental responsibilities," Rosky said.

It would allow mayors or judges to not only refuse to marry same-sex couples but interfaith couples or anyone they deem a sinner or not devout enough in a particular faith or who belongs to religion different from their own, he said.

Rosky said such a law would surely be challenged in court, and the state would be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending it only to lose.

Though leaders in the GOP-controlled House and Senate shelved religious freedom and nondiscrimination bills in the 2014 Legislature, Anderegg said they have indicated the legislation would be considered when lawmakers meet in January.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said lawmakers might be a "little reticent" when it comes to religious freedom and nondiscrimination bills. Niederhauser said he doesn't know if the 10th Circuit decision will stand when and if the Supreme Court weighs in on same-sex marriage.

"If we’re going to be talking about one, we’re going to be talking about the other. This is not cut and dried. This is not going to be easy for the Legislature," he said.

Niederhauser said there will be some conflicting elements in the legislation that lawmakers will have to sort through.

Urquhart has always maintained that a nondiscrimination law has nothing to do with marriage.

Some opponents argued it would establish grounds for the courts to legalize gay marriage. That argument can no longer be used against the bill, he said.

"Utahns are very fair-minded, and we have adults running the state. The logical conclusion is it's not OK to fire people and kick them out of housing because they're gay. I think we'll pass the bill this session," Urquhart said on KSL NewsRadio's "The Doug Wright Show."

Urquhart said, in his mind, the Republican Party is the party that expands liberty.

"This is up to my party now," he said. "The Democrats are there."

Bill Duncan, Sutherland Institute director of the Center for Family and Society, called passage of a statewide nondiscrimination law based on gender identity and sexual orientation a slippery slope.

"Once we insert that concept in the law, it's going to be hard to keep that from applying to all kinds of situations," he said.

Duncan said it could lead to a "public accommodations" law that would compel business people such as photographers or caterers to provide services for same-sex weddings even though it goes against their religious beliefs.

Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

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