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Lawmakers hold the balance on LGBT, religious rights issues

FILE: Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and the LGBT community blamed the LDS Church statement for turning the Senate against the measure.
FILE: Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and the LGBT community blamed the LDS Church statement for turning the Senate against the measure.
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers teed up several proposals this year that some perceived as upsetting a delicate compromise struck 12 months ago between religious freedom and gay rights.

Most of them fell by the wayside during the 45-day session that concluded Thursday. But they are sure to come up again as soon as the 2017 legislative session.

Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, once again found himself in the middle of competing interests. Organizations such as Equality Utah on one side and the Utah Eagle Forum on the other.

Last year, he helped broker a deal that affirmed religious liberties and protected LGBT people from discrimination in the workplace and housing. This year he tried to hold back groups that both supported and opposed that legislation from pushing new bills that he believed threatened last year's balance.

"It wasn't much of a stand down," he said.

Though bills ranging from a religious freedom restoration act to a public accommodations law were discussed, if not introduced, none went far.

"When you get deep-seated, passionate beliefs on both sides of the issue, the issues become harder to try to find a balance," Adams said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints voiced concern about legislation that could undo the compromise in which it played an integral role last year.

"Interests from both ends of the political spectrum are attempting to alter that balance," LDS Church spokesman Dale Jones said in February. "We believe that the careful balance achieved through being fair to all should be maintained."

Adams agreed with that as did House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, who told House Republicans he'd "like all quiet on the Western front," though he wouldn't tell them not to run their bills.

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said there's nothing so urgent that lawmakers couldn't wait a year or two to address. He said it's best to let the "monumental" compromise "settle in."

Only the controversial hate crimes bill reached a floor vote, and whether that legislation could be viewed as tilting the balance was arguable. Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and the LGBT community blamed the LDS Church statement for turning the Senate against the measure.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, said he would not only carry the bill next year but pass it. Proponents of the bill failed in the messaging, he said. People, he said, presumed they know what hate crimes means without reading the legislation.

"This is not a gay issue. This is a criminal justice issue," Thatcher said.

Pressure points

Adams said the hate crimes bill was well-intended but seemed to cause contention that divided the community.

"Some of the comments were, I don't want to call them hateful, but they were less than appropriate, and they surely weren’t always compassionate and tolerant," he said.

Niederhauser said the hate crimes bill didn't necessarily hinder the compromise but passing it would justify other legislation coming forward that would undo it.

"We had to fight off even last year bills that would have made our efforts of no effect," he said.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, introduced a bill this year titled, "Sovereign Marriage Authority," which declared that Utah, while recognizing and complying with court rulings, reserves the right to regulate domestic relations within the state. It further stated that Utah isn't obligated to change other areas of the law, specifically related to child welfare and adoption, as a result of legalized same-sex marriage.

Christensen shelved the bill before holding a committee hearing. He was noncommittal about whether he would bring that issue or others related to marriage or religious rights back to the Legislature.

"We're being very cautious and compassionate. At the same time, always alert to constitutional issues," he said. "We're taking the time to do it right, and do it with the sensitivity you would expect."

Public accommodation

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, ran a bill that would have made it illegal for Utah businesses such as bakeries and photography studios to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

He pulled it before it received a committee hearing because he said he wanted to focus on getting the hate crimes bill passed. Dabakis said the LDS Church's statement wasn't a factor in putting public accommodations on ice.

"You only have the troops and the force to concentrate in so many places," he said. "We put it up the flagpole. It was introduced. It was part of the discussion, and that's good."

Dabakis said he intends to bring it back next year and every year until it passes.

A public accommodations law is one of the issues that Adams said the state still has to deal with at some point.

"We're working on ways that that might be able to function," he said.

Meantime, the Utah Eagle Forum and Equality Utah will continue to marshal their ideologically and politically opposing forces for the 2017 Legislature.

"As far as additional religious liberties, it just didn't happen this year. We worked against some of the bad stuff. Hopefully next year will be a year to start bringing out more good stuff," said Gayle Ruzicka, Eagle Forum president.

Utah needs legislation to ensure individual freedom of conscience because most of the laws now are geared toward institutions, she said. The state also needs to make it illegal for children of the opposite sex to share bathrooms in schools, she said, adding proponents of that measure held it back this year.

Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said he's thankful an "unspeakably cruel" bill to ban transgender children from school bathrooms didn't see the light of day.

"We won't live in fear of bad legislation harming our community," he said, adding he believes many of the proposals this year were unconstitutional. "We can beat those in court. In the meantime, we won't stop working on good legislation just to keep the bad at bay."

Utah has a blueprint for success when it comes finding solutions to difficult problems, Adams said.

"I don't know that the issues are becoming less but I think the way we deal with them is hopefully better, he said.

The state, he said, tries to find rational, reasonable ways to get things done that includes compromise, respect and tolerance.

"I think we have that still," Adams said.

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