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Illinois professor could help Utah draft religious liberty, nondiscrimination bill

Sen. Jim Dabakis and Sen. Stephen Urquhart at a press conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City  Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Dabakis and Urquhart are two members of a bipartisan working group talking through areas where nondiscrimination law and
Sen. Jim Dabakis and Sen. Stephen Urquhart at a press conference at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Dabakis and Urquhart are two members of a bipartisan working group talking through areas where nondiscrimination law and religious liberties collide.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A well-respected University of Illinois law professor could play a role in helping state lawmakers draft legislation balancing religious rights and protections against discrimination for LGBT Utahns.

Robin Fretwell Wilson supports same-sex marriage and nondiscrimination laws. But she also wrote model legislation that accommodates the religious beliefs of individuals and small businesses. She will be in Utah on Thursday to consult with legislators trying to piece together a proposal for the Legislature.

"If there's an opportunity to be helpful, I would love to do that," she told the Deseret News. She was already scheduled to be in the state for a Federalist Society symposium at BYU.

Wilson said her sense from the dialogue in Utah is that people are "hopelessly confused." Nobody's trying to lie, she said, but people are just talking past each other.

But if Utahns can overcome that, she said, the state could set a template for the rest of the country.

"This is going to be watershed moment," Wilson said.

Sens. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, formed a working group to talk through areas where nondiscrimination law and religious liberties collide.

Adams said it has been extremely difficult so far but that he's "cautiously optimistic" they can come up with a bill.

Wilson, co-author of the 2008 book "Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts" advocates legislation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination that includes modest "step-offs" for religious objectors. She has worked on bills in Washington state and Hawaii.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last month called on government officials to protect religious rights while also protecting LGBT Utahns from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels and transportation. Church leaders also emphasized that people should not be forced to perform services that go against their religious beliefs.

"I think the church really got this right," Wilson said, adding its position advances both sides without stopping anyone's progress.

While at Washington and Lee University in 2012, Wilson wrote a paper on "sticking points" that legislators found in exemptions for religious objectors that would permit them to step aside from facilitating same-sex marriages so long as no hardship would result.

The paper maintains that religious accommodations qualified by hardship to others can transform what could be a zero-sum proposition into one in which access and religious freedom can both be affirmed.

Wilson's work has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," "Good Morning America" and CBS News.

The three bills on anti-discrimination and religious rights that have emerged during the legislative session remain in limbo.

SB100, sponsored by Urquhart, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace and housing.

Dabakis' SB99 bans discrimination in places of public accommodation on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, proposed a bill that would add religious liberty provisions to the state's anti-discrimination and fair housing laws. HB322 proposes to guarantee "perfect toleration of religious sentiment" and that "rights of conscience shall never be infringed." It also says the legal exercise of religious liberty is a defense to claims of discrimination.

On Tuesday, Equality Utah held a reception to bring LGBT Utahns and legislators together to talk in a casual setting. About a dozen lawmakers attended, and three people shared their stories about being gay or transgender in Utah.

Neca Allgood talked about helping her transgender son transition from a girl to a boy during his junior year in high school.

"I didn't choose to have a transgender child, but I have chosen to love and support Grayson," she said.

Allgood described herself and her son as active Mormons. Grayson, 20, sings baritone in the Salt Lake LDS Institute Choir, she said.

Grayson Allgood recent got his first job in a community that already has a nondiscrimination ordinance. She said she wants him to be hired or promoted based on his ability, effort and education.

A former state and county Republican delegate, Neca Allgood said putting protections for LGBT Utahns in employment and housing into law would not compromise religious protections.

Andy Rivera said he regretted coming out to his employer in 2011 as transgender. He said his managers and co-workers immediately started harassing him. He said he learned the hard way that gender identity and sexual orientation aren't protected.

"At the age of 20, I found you could be fired from a job in Utah simply for being transgender," he said.

Rivera said it took him a long time find a job where he could be himself and not live in fear. He now works in health care at the University of Utah, which has protections for LGBT employees.

Drew Reese said his college roommate tried to get him kicked out of their apartment after he discovered he was gay. "I suffered humiliation of having to beg and fight to keep a roof over my head," he said.

He joined the military shortly after 9/11 and served 11 years in the Air Force and Army under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Reese, who now owns a home in Sandy, said LGBT Utahns shouldn't have to live in fear that they could be evicted or fired because their landlord or boss believes differently than they do. As a veteran, he said, he should have access to the civil liberties he took an oath to protect.

"I'm just asking you to represent me," Reese told lawmakers. "I'm just asking you to represent people like me."

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