Buttars: New Queer Ally or Business as Usual?

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Just days after the Salt Lake City Council passed two historic ordinances offering workplace and housing protections to gay and transgender residents an unlikely State Senator has announced that he may introduce a bill in the next legislative session that follows similar lines.

The question many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights leaders are asking now: Exactly what will that bill look like?

On Nov. 19, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune that he is considering authoring a bill in the 2010 General Legislative Session that would let municipal governments like Salt Lake City’s to enact ordinances that add sexual orientation and gender identity to their nondiscrimination laws but prohibit them for enacting any other kind of gay or transgender-inclusive policy.

“Maybe we ought to have a statewide bill that allows those things, but that’s all it allows. No creep,” said Buttars, referring to what he sees as “legislative creep” towards legalizing gay marriage or circumventing Utah’s constitutional ban on such marriages. Utah voters approved this ban in 2004.

Buttars was the legislator’s most vocal supporter of that amendment — dubbed Amendment 3 — and has opposed all legislation aimed at helping gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people specifically or tangentially since taking office in 2001. During this year’s legislative session he opposed all four bills in statewide gay and transgender rights group Equality Utah’s Common Ground Initiative, which included a bill that sought to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah’s antidiscrimination act. He also made headlines across the world for telling documentary filmmaker Reed Cowan that gays and lesbians had no morals and were second only to terrorists as “the biggest threat to America going down.”

Further, just a few months ago, Buttars was a staunch opponent of the ordinances, which Mayor Ralph Becker began drafting in July after a report by the city’s Human Rights Commission revealed that anti-gay and transgender discrimination was a problem in the state capitol. In the same month, Buttars hinted that he might author a bill to prohibit the ordinances from being enacted if they were to pass. Now, however, the LDS Church has stated its support for the Salt Lake ordinances and Buttars, a practicing Latter-day Saint, has said their position made him reconsider.

However, Gayle Ruzicka, Buttars’ long-time political ally and president of the conservative Eagle Forum, said that the proposed bill didn’t “make a bit of sense” because municipal governments already have the power to draft such ordinances — in fact, Park City and Salt Lake County’s Councils are talking of doing just that.

For once, it appears that gay and transgender rights leaders and Ruzicka may agree on something.

Will Carlson, then manager of Public Policy for statewide gay and transgender group Equality Utah, noted that members of the community had come up with a number of theories on what Buttars’ bill would actually do.

“It’s not at all clear which version it is,” he said. One theory, he noted, was that the proposed legislation could actually forbid city and county governments from passing any laws or ordinances that mention sexual orientation or gender identity beyond job and housing protections.

Carlson noted that he had talked to Buttars a few weeks ago about the bill. “Even then it was just an idea,” he said.

Nonetheless, he said that Equality Utah would not leave the conversation just because the bill is not yet fully developed.

“We have a call in to try and schedule another meeting with him,” he said. “Our position is [that] the best way to make sure this is not a hostile bill is to be in dialogues with him.”

James Humphreys, Vice President of the Utah Log Cabin Republicans, also expressed concerns about Buttars’ bill. While stressing that LCR, a group of conservatives representing the Republican Party’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender caucus, supports Salt Lake’s ordinances, Humphreys said they “are not so sure this is a statewide issue.”

“As a conservative organization, we think that local government  should have the final say on these issues,” he said, adding that a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance may or may not fall into this category. “We think it’s harsh to have the state come in like Big Brother [forcing municipalities] to do it their way.”

Further, Humphreys expressed concern over the timing of Buttars’ bill — particularly given that Salt Lake City’s ordinances are not scheduled to go into effect until April 2, 2010.

“This gives the legislature time to preempt them,” by creating statewide nondiscrimination guidelines to which cities and counties must adhere, he said. And such a potential bill, he added, could be a repeat of Utah’s infamous hate crimes enhancement law, which leaves the decision to add enhancements for crimes of biases in the hands of judges and prosecutors.

“It’s more likely a bill will be passed by more extreme members of our party that would gut the bill, so they could say, ‘We’ve dealt with antidiscrimination [protections for gay and transgender people], but there would be no punishment, no deterrent,” he said. So by losing the teeth of the bill, we’d potentially be patting ourselves on the back saying we did a good job like we did with hate crimes a few years ago when [that statue] did nothing to the community.”

He added that LCR would oppose any such bill or ordinance that prohibited discrimination against gay and transgender people but did not outline clear consequences for engaging in that discrimination.
Still, Humphreys said he remains hopeful that Buttars’ proposed bill will be “similar to what the Salt Lake ordinances are,” and that the LDS Church’s tentative support for a statewide ordinance may influence some of the “more extreme members of our party” to support such an ordinance.

“We’re cautiously optimistic … but we’re not convinced entirely,” he said.

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