An In-Depth Look at Salt Lake City’s New Nondiscrimination Ordinances

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A two year battle to expand Salt Lake City’s nondiscrimination housing and employment ordinances to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people came to end on Nov. 17 as Mayor Ralph Becker signed both documents, which the City Council had unanimously approved just a week previously.

“This was number two on the list,” Becker said, referring to his list of campaign goals for gay and transgender Salt Lake citizens he announced during his candidacy two years ago (the first was the creation of the city’s “Mutual Commitment Registry” for domestic partners last year.). “This effort today really culminates more than two years of a lot of hard work by an enormous amount of people. It took that kind of effort of a lot of people willing to come together put aside our natural differences to realize that at the heart of our success as a community is all of us living together and respecting each other.”

While the ordinances are set to take effect April 2, 2010, questions remain about their future before a Republican-dominated legislature during next year’s General Legislative Session, as well as about what protections, exactly, they offer for the capitol’s residents.

The Anatomy of an Ordinance

Both 12 page ordinances begin by stating that the city values diversity and that discrimination in all forms is a threat to the city’s “social and economic progress,” as well as to all residents’ ability to contribute to the society in which they live. And while both have similar language, they have slightly different provisions and exemptions.

The employment ordinance prohibits employers from firing or refusing to hire an otherwise qualified candidate (based on such qualities as education, training and ability) because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity and from giving preferential treatment to employees based on these qualities—even to address a disparity of workers with a certain orientation or gender identity.

Other forbidden practices include harassment, discriminating in compensation and employment conditions and promoting and demoting employees. The ordinance also applies to employment agencies, labor organizations and training programs (including apprenticeships and programs run by vocational schools). Further, employers, labor organizations and agencies may not publish advertisements for job openings that specifically or implicitly limit or deny candidates based on sexual orientation or gender identity — unless such qualities are “a bona fide occupational qualification for employment” (as in, for example, a gay-owned organization that specifically served gay male clients).  

Violations of this law are handled by a mayoral appointee who has the power to investigate complaints and to attempt mediation between both involved parties, which may result in having the employer undergo sensitivity training or adopt a nondiscrimination workplace policy. If mediation does not work, the appointee may then refer the complaint to the City Attorney for further action. Businesses found guilty of discrimination may be fined $500 (if they employ 50 or fewer people) or $1,000 (for businesses with more than 51 employees).

Exemptions to the ordinance include religious organizations and businesses, businesses employing 15 or fewer people, federal agencies based in Salt Lake City and groups like the Boy Scouts of America whose “rights of expressive association” could be compromised by hiring a gay or transgender employee (the organization does not allow gay members).

The housing ordinance prohibits sellers and landlords from refusing to rent or sell a property, discriminating in lease conditions, or expressing a preference for people of a certain sexual orientation or gender identity in notices about a property. These stipulations also apply to real estate agents and to membership in real estate organizations.

Exceptions to this ordinance cover single-family dwellings (when the owner possesses fewer than four properties in the city up for lease or sale) or properties with four or fewer units. Additionally, properties owned by religious, nonprofit and charitable groups are also exempt, as are dormitories owned by private and public educational institutions if “the discrimination is based on sexual orientation or gender identity for reasons of personal modesty or privacy or in the furtherance of a religious organization’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The process for pursuing a complaint against a landlord or seller is identical to that outlined in the employment nondiscrimination ordinance. Fines for offenses are $500 for a property owner with 20 or fewer dwellings and $1,000 for an owner of 21 or more dwellings or a real estate agent.
Currently city law forbids housing and employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, pregnancy status, religion, national origin, disability and age for people 40 and over.

Notably, both ordinances also point out that they do not create any so-called “special rights” for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people “because every person has a sexual orientation and a gender identity.” The argument that they would was one favored by opponents of the ordinances, including several conservative legislators.

Other Cities, Other Ordinances

In days leading up to and after the passage of both Salt Lake City ordinances, two other municipal governments have expressed interest in passing similar laws: Park City’s and Salt Lake County’s—the latter of which extended insurance benefits to non-spousal adult designees of county employees (including same-sex partners) earlier this year.

“We already have internal [nondiscrimination codes] as policy in the city for hiring here,” said Park City Mayor Dana Williams. And Williams he added that he has never “heard first hand” of discrimination in housing or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity within the politically liberal city, he nonetheless said that passing a city wide ordinance was “kind of a duh.”

“I brought it up to the council and said, ‘Is it something you’d consider?’ They said, unanimously, ‘Let’s look at it,’” he said.

Williams has forwarded a copy of Salt Lake City’s ordinances to the city’s five councilmembers and to the city’s legal department to “get the whole team to buy in.”

“I think this is something we can do in a matter of weeks,” he said. “Most everything we do takes years, but this thing is relatively easy.”

Like Salt Lake City and County, Park City offers health benefits to the domestic partners of city employees—and has for over two years.

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, who has backed gay and transgender rights proposals in the county for years, said that she thinks the Democratic-majority council is in a good position to at least begin discussing the an ordinance like Salt Lake City’s in the coming months.

Wilson also said that the County government has forbidden employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity since the 1990s. In fact, Wilson noted that questions the County Council will need to resolve when discussing such an ordinance include whether or not tenants in county-subsidized low income housing are currently protected under this policy, and issues pertaining to parts of the county that are unincorporated.

Councilman Joe Hatch, another proponent of the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance, recently told Fox 13 news that the county would likely pattern its ordinance “after what Salt Lake City did.”

What Does the Future Hold?

While the Salt Lake City ordinances found an unusual (and unprecedented) ally in the LDS Church, which issued a statement in support of them the day they came before the council, many legislators and lobbyist groups consider the ordinances a threat to heterosexual marriage.

But while some legislators had previously discussed running a bill to ban the ordinances in the 2010 General Legislative Session, none have so far stated that they will definitely do so. In fact, notoriously anti-gay Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, has now said that he may draft a bill that would extend housing and employment nondiscrimination policies like Salt Lake’s statewide. Before the LDS Church’s support for the ordinances, Buttars was among their most vocal opponents.

Meanwhile, the ordinances’ success and the church’s backing has re-energized Equality Utah. The statewide gay and transgender rights group drafted four pro-gay bills last session known as the Common Ground Initiative. Despite polls showing that a majority of Utahns favor protections for gay and transgender people like those the Salt Lake ordinances provide, each bill failed to make it onto the Senate or House floors for debate.

Before leaving his position on Nov. 20, Will Carlson, Equality Utah’s then-Manager of Public Policy, said that many of the Common Ground bills would return in 2010, including a fair employment bill by Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City and a bill seeking to allow same-sex couples to adopt children. He also said that Equality Utah was having conversations with legislators about “other issues that may come up.”

He noted, however, that the group will have a lot of work to do in making sure these bills reach the floor for ebate.

“I think the statement of the church is going to change dialogue around a whole lot of these things, but as of our last count, it hasn’t changed much [in the way of state politics],” he said.  “We don’t have legislators saying, “I was against [the Common Ground Initiative] before and am for it now,’ but they’re more willing to have conversations.”

Although Equality Utah is currently talking with many municipal governments around the state about ordinances similar to Salt Lake’s, Carlson said that a statewide nondiscrimination law that includes sexual orientation and gender identity would be “ideal.”

We are having conversations all over the place,” he said. “We don’t want to jump the gun, but this is a great time for Equality Utah because we’re moving beyond Salt Lake City to represent the needs of all Utah residents.”

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