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Now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, what would it take for it to become a legal holiday in Utah?

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Betty Sawyer, Project Success Coalition and Utah Juneteenth Freedom and Heritage Festival executive director, speaks during a Juneteenth flag-raising ceremony outside of the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 18, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Now that Juneteenth has been recognized as national holiday, what would it take for it to become a legal holiday in Utah?

The simple answer is passage of a bill in both the House and the Senate of the Utah Legislature that is then signed into law by the governor.

Then Juneteenth could join other Utah legal holidays such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Independence Day, Pioneer Day and Christmas.

State statute on legal holidays also allows observance of “all days which may be set apart by the President of the United States or the governor of this state by proclamation as days of fast or thanksgiving.”

Juneteenth commemorates the arrival of federal troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. This was 2 1⁄2 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed into law legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and by unanimous vote in the Senate.

Juneteenth is a ‘commemorative period’ in Utah statute

Juneteenth Freedom Day currently appears in Utah statute as a “commemorative period,” meaning it is a day to be “commemorated annually.” Other such examples are Utah Flag Day, Bill of Rights Day or Utah History Day at the Capitol.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, the first Black woman to serve in the Utah Legislature, sponsored HB338, which was passed in 2016 and added Juneteenth as a commemorative period.

Hollins said Friday she was “thrilled” to see legislation pass and be signed into law establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday “and I would love to see it pass in Utah. I would love to see that kind of holiday and that’s something that I think is definitely worth looking at here.”

A number of people have already reached out to Hollins to ask if she wouId consider sponsoring legislation to make Juneteenth a legal holiday in Utah.

“I’m willing to look at possibly doing that,” she said.

Confusion over whether Juneteenth is a state holiday

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s recent declaration of June 19 as Juneteenth in Utah stirred confusion with some people believing it was a declaration of a state holiday.

“It’s true that Juneteenth became a federal holiday today, but it is NOT a state holiday in Utah. That requires approval from the state Legislature,” a statement by Cox’s office released Thursday said. “The declaration issued by Gov. Cox is a recognition of a cultural celebration and not a holiday designation.”

The statement noted Utah offices would be open for business Friday.

Cox’s declaration acknowledges “that there is still progress to be made ensuring racial equality for all.”

It also lifts up the Utah Compact on Racial Equality, Diversity and Inclusion signed in December 2020, which is a declaration of five principles and actions to create equal opportunity.

In May, the governing board of Utah’s public colleges and universities urged state schools to celebrate Juneteenth.

Another call for Juneteenth observances

A resolution to support and celebrate Juneteenth within the Utah System of Higher Education received unanimous approval of the Utah Board of Higher Education on May 22.

The resolution “acknowledges that failing to affirm and celebrate the diverse cultural identities and histories that exist in Utah and its institutions reinforces systemic racism, trauma and erasures that impact students, staff and faculty.”

The resolution says in part that “Juneteenth is an opportunity for the board to reflect on the previous year’s efforts and renew the system and institutional commitment to closing opportunity and attainment gaps for African American, African and Black students, staff, and faculty persisting within Utah higher education.”

Utah’s long road to recognizing MLK Day by name

Utah was among the last states to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a legal holiday. Federal legislation to create a holiday honoring King was signed into law in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan.

In 1986, Coretta Scott King made a personal appeal to the Utah Legislature to establish a holiday in the state in her slain husband’s name. Lawmakers instead chose Human Rights Day, arguing that other people besides King were instrumental in human rights efforts.

After intense pressure from critics in and out of state, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt signed legislation passed in the 2000 legislative session that renamed Human Rights Day to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. SB121was sponsored by Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake City, who died the following year in an ATV accident.