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SB296 bridges anti-discrimination, religious freedoms divide; could be a model for other states

Senate Bill 296, which modifies Utah's Anti-Discrimination and Fair Housing acts to address both religious freedoms and discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity, provides a welcome bridging of two seemingly divisive sides.
Senate Bill 296, which modifies Utah's Anti-Discrimination and Fair Housing acts to address both religious freedoms and discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity, provides a welcome bridging of two seemingly divisive sides.
Matt Gade, Deseret News

Anti-discrimination legislation and religious liberty protections. In the minds of many, the two seemed to be polar opposites, two sides of an “either/or” scenario — you can have one or the other.

But not a balance — certainly not both.

That is, until Wednesday, when representatives the Legislature, LDS Church and LGBT community came together in support of Senate Bill 296, which modifies Utah’s Anti-discrimination and Fair Housing acts to address both discrimination and religious freedoms.

What they have crafted is historic and could well become a template for legislation in other states.

Included at Wednesday’s news conference on the bill’s introduction were legislators such as Sens. Stephen H. Urquhart and J. Stuart Adams, chief sponsors of the bill; LGBT leaders such as Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams and Sen. Jim Dabakis; and Elders L. Tom Perry and D. Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Sister Neill F. Marriott of the church's Young Women general presidency.

All acknowledged SB296 as effectively and harmoniously bridging the divisive gap between the anti-discrimination and religious freedoms sides. In short, SB296 was praised as “monumental” and “historic.”

The bill proposes to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment while clarifying exemptions for religious institutions and providing protections for religious expression.

The bill would prohibit employers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation, with landlords and property owners also banned from discriminating against LGBT people. Also, the bill states such protections for employment and housing would not create a special or protected class for other purposes.

SB296 affords everyone the same free-speech protections in their private lives, with no one to be fired for religious, personal or political beliefs about marriage, family and sexuality.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the LDS Church said: “In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others. After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah legislature has wisely struck that balance. ... While none of the parties achieved all they wanted, we do at least now have an opportunity to lessen the divisiveness in our communities without compromising on key principles.

Calling it “an exciting moment in Utah history,” Williams added: “Today, we prove the protections for LGBT Utahns can stand alongside protections for people of faith. One need not harm the other. The legislation we have crafted is a win-win for everyone who lives in this state.”

And Adams expects SB296 to serve as a beacon for other states as well. “If Utah can do this, in my opinion, it can be done anywhere in the nation,” he said.

We salute those who have helped bridge the gap, those who reached out and spoke out in efforts to draw the anti-discrimination and religious freedoms sides together. We acknowledge the careful crafting of this bill and the opportunity the Utah Legislature has in making it a reality. We commend SB296 as an example for others to follow.