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2008 Legislative Preview

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Each year, Utah’s state legislature debates a number of bills specifically targeted towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens. With seven bills proposed so far, the 2008 legislative session is no different. In preparation for the session’s start on Jan. 21 QSaltLake presents a preview of these bills for our readers' benefit and education.

Employment Discrimination. HB 89 Antidiscrimination Act Amendments was drafted by Equality Utah and is sponsored by Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City.

If passed in its current incarnation, the bill will make it illegal for Utah employers to refuse to hire, promote, demote or fire an employee based on his or her real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill also makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against otherwise qualified gay or transgender employees on the basis of wages and privileges and conditions of employment.

In a December interview with QSaltLake, Johnson said that several events inspired her to run the bill. These included the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in November (though without protection for transgender workers) and the local case of Krystal Ettsity, a UTA bus driver fired for being a transwoman.

In Ettsity’s case, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that her firing was legal under Utah law, which currently does not prohibit discrimination against transgender people.

Keri Jones, Equality Utah’s Manager of Programs & Administration, said the bill, if passed, will make it so that people are judged solely on their job performance and experience.

“The law has held that other characteristics, like race and religion, are irrelevant and should not be considered by an employer,” she said. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are also irrelevant to whether a person is qualified for a job. Passing this amendment will help ensure a fair and just Utah.”

Currently, Utah law prohibits discrimination on race, color, sex, age (if the individual is over 40 years old), childbirth or pregnancy status, religion, national origin and disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Bullying and Hazing. Drafted by gay rights organization Equality Utah and cosponsored by Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, this bill, if passed, will give school districts a set of minimum standards to address all forms of bullying and hazing.

Although the bill is not targeted specifically towards gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, Buttars specifically addressed the bill’s impact on such students at a November 2007 University of Utah panel discussion on banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Although often a foe of gay rights legislation in Utah (including Johnson’s Antidiscrimination Act Amendments bill), Butters said he and Spackman worked closely with Equality Utah to draft this bill.

“I hate bullying,” said Buttars. “I grew up protecting the kid that was always picked on. Nobody should be discriminated against.”

Although no text for the bill was available at press time, Equality Utah has said that the legislation, if passed, will create uniform definitions for bullying and hazing. As long as these minimum standards are met, individual school districts will be free to create their own anti-bullying policies.

Child Abandonment. Sponsored by Rep. Lori Fowlke, R-Orem, HB 23 Child and Family Protections would it a third degree felony for parents to abandon their children. The bill also seeks to make child abandonment a second degree felony if it causes the child serious physical injury or if the parents receive any benefit in abandoning the child.

The bill defines child abandonment as a parent or legal guardian intentionally ceasing to maintain physical custody of a child without making reasonable arrangements for his or her care and provision.

According to Fowlke, this bill is a joint effort of “several attorneys in several agencies,” in Utah and was designed to go after leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose abandonment of teenage boys (dubbed “the Lost Boys” by the press) has made national headlines.

“What we were looking at was a way to criminally go after leaders of the church that require member families to throw out male children so they have enough teenage girls to marry off to the men there.”

This is the reason, she said, that the bill also holds anyone who encourages or orders a parent to abandon a child guilty of a felony. She also stressed that the bill was intended to protect parents coerced by FLDS leaders into kicking their sons out.

Fowlke added, however, that the bill was not intended to address families who kick children out for other reasons, including being gay.

“It’s intended more for criminal prosecution of organizations that are doing this,” she said.
But Will Carlson, Equality Utah’s Manager of Policy, said that the bill has unintended consequences for other minors.

 “What she doesn’t realize is that most homeless youth aren’t homeless because of polygamy but because they’re LGBT and got kicked out,” he said.

“Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness,” a joint study conducted by the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force and the National Coalition for the Homeless in February, 2007 estimated that 20-40 percent of homeless youth in the United States identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Homeless youth are at an increased risk for a number of ills, including substance abuse, mental illness and being the targets of violence. They are also at risk for sexual abuse, including prostitution.

Child and Family Protections passed the House unanimously last year, but did not make it onto the Senate’s calendar by the time the session closed.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Rep. Phil Riesen, D-Salt Lake City, and Sen. Allen M. Christensen are sponsoring HB 15, Control and Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. HB 15 seeks to appropriate $350,000 to the Utah Health Department and local health departments to educate Utahns about the health consequences of sexually transmitted diseases and treatment options, both public and privately-funded.

The bill allows for materials in English and other languages “appropriate for the geographic area.” It also stipulates that health departments are to give medically accurate information as well as information stating that “abstinence before marriage and fidelity after marriage [are] the surest prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.”

The bill comes at a crucial time for the state. Cases of diagnosed sexually transmitted diseases in Utah have increased dramatically in the past five years. According to preliminary data from the Utah Department of Health, newly diagnosed cases of chlamydia in the state have jumped from 1,563 in 1996 to 5,627 in 2007. Diagnosed cases of gonorrhea have climbed from 303 in 1995 to 888 in 2007. A number of these cases since 2002 have been documented in Utah’s youth as well, with over 1,300 teenage boys having contracted one or both diseases. Chlamydia rates in young women have also skyrocketed.

Lynn Beltran, STD & HIV/AIDS Program Manager at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, said that the rise in STD cases parallels an increase in HIV cases, which means people are more likely engaging in unprotected sex. And from what she has seen in her clinic, she says people are likely doing so because they are uninformed about how STDs are contracted.
“I’ve even had people say, ‘wow those diseases are still around’,” she said.             

Domestic Violence. Rep. David Litvack will reintroduce his “Domestic Violence and Dating Violence Amendments.” Numbered HB 247, this legislation makes it easier for victims of dating and domestic violence to file protective orders against their abusers, regardless of the victim and perpetrators’ sexual orientation or gender identity or whether or not the couple is married or living together.

HB 247 will allow orders to be issued and enforced between parties in a romantic or intimate relationship who are emancipated minors or over age 16.

The bill defines dating violence any criminal offense involving physical harm, the threat of violence or any attempt to commit harm. It is inclusive of assault, harassment (including stalking and electronic communication harassment), kidnapping, property destruction and sexual offenses. It permits individuals to seek a protective order if a romantic partner has hurt them or if there is a “substantial likelihood” that a partner may do so.

“We’re as likely to be abusive as hetero couples, but the problem is we’re less likely to be seen as cohabiting, as being like victims," said Carlson. "Because it expands the number of relationships that can be covered by protective orders, we’re supporting it.”

If passed, the bill will take effect Sept. 1, 2008.

Property and Estates in Wrongful Death Suits.
Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring Wrongful Death Amendments, a bill that will allow people to designate who has legal standing if they die due to medical negligence or malpractice.

Utah law currently does not let individuals designate anyone who isn’t a legal spouse or a child. Further, the law doesn’t allow a specific relative to be designated – any or all eligible relatives can sue. Currently, the law excludes not only unmarried partners but step parents and adult step children.

Equality Utah maintains that the current law is harmful to taxpayers because it not only allows multiple people to sue in wrongful deaths, but puts relatives who can’t sue and who are dependent upon the deceased in danger of becoming financially dependent on the state.

“It’s a really important bill, because someone may die before they have a planned estate to take care of a dependant,” said Carlson. “This allows those who are actually dependant to hold the guilty party responsible.”

Like many bills this session, Wrongful Death Amendments came up last year. But Carlson said it was withdrawn in committee over concerns that it actually increased the number of people who could sue for wrongful death.

Since then, Carlson said McCoy has worked closely with Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Cache County, to narrow its focus.

“So part of this bill now is being able to narrow the table in designating who can sue,” Carlson sasid.

The bill had not been released by press time.

Stay tuned for more updates throughout the 2008 Legislative session.

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