SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, police arrested Troy Williams and 12 others for disrupting a legislative meeting to protest lawmakers' decision to not hold a hearing on a proposed statewide anti-discrimination law.
On Wednesday, the Equality Utah executive director and dozens of others celebrated the passage of a bill that extends protections against discrimination to LGBT Utahns in employment and housing. SB296 also clarifies exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates and provides protections for religious expression.
"Oh, what a difference a year makes," Williams said.
"This says LGBT Utahns belong in this state. This is our home. We're now being woven into the legal fabric of this state."
House Majority Assistant Whip Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the bill doesn't wash away Utah's religious character but strengthens it.
Intense negotiations among legislators, gay rights advocates, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and others produced what they all say is historic and monumental legislation that serves as a model for the nation.
In an unprecedented news conference last month attended by two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the LDS Church publicly endorsed the bill.
"It's very hard to craft something balanced, but we believe we've achieved it," said Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, the co-sponsor of SB296.
House sponsor Rep. Brad Dee, R-Ogden, said the issue is one legislators often hide from and don't want to deal with. "But that's not who we are," he said in an emotional floor speech describing his 3 ½-year journey coming to grips with the legislation.
State lawmakers late Wednesday also passed a new version of SB297, which now requires a county clerk or the clerk's "willing" designee to be available during business hours to perform weddings for any couple that qualifies for a marriage license. In Utah, that would include same-sex couples.
"No one can be a chokepoint on the path to marriage. Otherwise, the right means nothing," said University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who helped write both measure.
The bill, which Adams also sponsored, includes broad protection of religious beliefs, exercises and conscience. It also prohibits a person from requiring a religious official or church to provide services or accommodations for a marriage that is contrary to their beliefs.
SB297 also prohibits government from retaliating against business and professional license holders based on the expression of their beliefs outside work.
The LDS Church issued a statement Wednesday also backing that bill.
"The church has been consistent in its support of marriage between a man and a woman while teaching that all people should be treated with respect. There have been various attempts discussed by lawmakers to deal with the changing definition of marriage in our state. We are supportive of SB297 because it is a more balanced and fair approach to marriage and religious freedom protections," said spokesman Eric Hawkins.
Although the sponsors described the two measures as stand-alone legislation, many lawmakers saw them working in tandem.
"People should not have to fear because they live. Likewise people of faith should not need to fear because they believe," Rep. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.
The House voted 65-10 to pass SB296 and 66-9 to pass SB297. The Senate earlier approved both bills but will reconsider SB297 because it was substituted. Gov. Gary Herbert will sign SB296 on Thursday in the Capitol rotunda, according to his office.
The House also passed HB322, which reaffirms religious freedom spelled out in the Utah and U.S. constitutions. The bill, which passed 54-21, now goes to the Senate for consideration.
"Without this, where is the protection for the individual?" said bill sponsor LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, adding that it would complement the other two bills.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill contradicts language in those bills. He said he doesn't think religious beliefs should trump a government worker's obligation to serve the public.
"If they're not prepared to do that, they should not put on the hat of acting in the capacity of a public official," King said.
Often adversarial advocacy groups Equality Utah and Utah Eagle Forum lent their support to SB297, though both have some reservations.
Williams said Equality Utah on principle doesn't like the idea that county clerks could opt out of performing marriages.
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said the bill covers religious institutions but still doesn't go far enough to protect individual religious rights. "The members of those churches should have the same protections as the churches do," she said.
But Salt Lake attorney Michael Erickson said "SB297 picks up where SB296 leaves off." He said the bills give everyone the opportunity to be who they are at work and home.
"As people of faith or LGBT individuals, we need not fear reprisals," Erickson said.
Two days into the legislative session, LDS Church leaders called on government officials to protect religious rights while also protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender 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.
During House floor debate, Rep. Jeremy Peterson, R-Ogden, said as a property manager he rents to LGBT people and will continue to do so.
"I believe that we can have a culture of kindness in this state without being compelled by the law," he said in voting against the bill.
Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said it's "disturbing" that in 2015 there are people in the community having to ask for equal treatment.
"This is embarrassing. As a person of color and a woman, I know what it means to be discriminated against," said Hollins, the only back member of the Utah House.
Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said homosexuality is not a civil right but access to housing and employment is. Passing the bill, he said, doesn't condone a particular sexual orientation or gender identity.
SB296 would prohibit business with 15 or more employees from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Landlords and property owners with four or more units also would be banned from discriminating against LGBT people.
Protections for employment and housing do not create a special or protected class for other purposes, according to the bill.
The bill aims to afford everyone the same free-speech protections in their private lives, and people could not be fired for their religious, personal or political beliefs about marriage, family or sexuality.
The bills seeks to protect churches and their affiliates, religious schools, small or family-owned businesses, and specifically the Boy Scouts of America. It would not prohibit employers from setting "reasonable" dress and grooming standards and designating sex-specific bathrooms or showers.
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