Rep. Christine Johnson, Republicans Compromise on Gay, Transgender Protections Bills

Several bills, both pro- and anti-gay, were making it through the Utah State Legislature pipeline this session, but a compromise between Democratic and Republican leaders has effectively put a moratorium on any gay legislation this year.

Newly introduced House Bill 128, cosponsored by Democratic and openly-lesbian Rep. Christine Johnson and Republican, and openly-LDS, Sen. Howard Stephenson, is titled Anti-Discrimination Study Related to Employment and Housing and, according to Johnson, will put all bills related to the recently-codified ordinances on housing and employment, as well as gay and lesbian adoption and wrongful death, “to bed.”

Newly-sworn Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, who spearheaded the new ordinances in Salt Lake City, opened the press conference announcing the new bill on Friday afternoon, Jan. 29.

“Our goal to produce legislation that reflects thoughtful and respectful compromise, bringing together Democrats and Republicans, Mormons and non-Mormons, gay and straight has achieved success in its early stages,” Johnson said.

The uncodified study, said Johnson, would create a committee to research housing and employment discrimination within the state, its cities and around the country. The committee would report before the 2011 Legislative Session whether additional legislation is warranted.

“In exchange, this bipartisan bill puts all bills relating to preemption, adherence, employment and housing nondiscrimination, as well as LGBT adoption and wrongful death to bed for the remainder of the session,” Johnson explained.

“This, in no way, means that opposing sides are abandoning their respective legislative goals,” Johnson continued. “It does, however, mean that Democrats and Republicans have mutually agreed that further edification and understanding on all sides of the issue is necessary.”

“It is my goal,” Johnson said, “to help Utahns understand that sharing our state means respecting differences in belief and opinion, and that allowing opportunity for critical dialog to prevail over narrow-focused and closed-minded perspective is paramount in achieving balance.”

Johnson said she would take the opportunity to learn more about the “other side’s viewpoint” and hopes in return to be afforded the same courtesy.

Stephensen noted in his statements that McAdams was “pivotal in working with the Becker administration in bringing all of the different groups on both sides of the issue together in unity in supporting this important anti-discrimination ordinance,” speaking of Salt Lake City’s new ordinances making it illegal to fire someone or evict them from their home for simply being gay, bisexual or transgender.

“It’s important now that we let it work and see how it works,” he said. He reiterated that the new bill is not a “backing-down on beliefs,” but an agreement to get data and science and return next session with “hopefully with greater civility than we’ve ever experienced within our communities.”

Johnson said a total of “eight or nine” bills related to the anti-discrimination ordinances had been written.

“There was a desire on both sides to be almost reactionary to Salt Lake City’s ordinances,” Johnson said.

She noted the stress of the current session and the desire to work on important topics which affect the community as a whole rather than the hot-button topics surrounding gay and lesbian rights.

Also, Stephenson aid there is a “common desire to ensure that Utah is not the battleground for the nation on these kinds of issues.”

“We hope to set a standard of civility and cooperation and respect that hopefully will be copied in other states,” he said.

Majority Whip Sen. Jenkins said the Senate Republican leaders supported the compromise as “a good truce.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made the unusual move to publicly support the ordinances, while Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says that while discriminating against gay people is wrong, it shouldn’t be a crime.

Why the Compromise?

Johnson made a video intended for supporters of gay and transgender rights explaining why she drafted the compromise.

“Not since 2006 has the LGBT community walked into session with bills stacked against them the way we have experienced this session,” Johnson said in the video. “I personally identified five bills between the house and senate that were specifically targeting members of the LGBT community and municipalities like Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County who have enacted ordinances to protect us in housing and employment.”

Johnson said that these bills and the four bills being presented in support of gay and transgender rights were generating a lot of tension in the legislature.

“Honestly, I have no guarantee, and in all likelihood [favorable] bills would have failed,” she said. “On the other hand, I think the bills working against us would have passed. And that’s sort of the grim reality of our political situation.”

Johnson said that it is possible the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have come forward in support of maintaining the housing and employment protections, “though not guaranteed.”

HB 128, however, has been green-lighted by leaders on both sides of the aisle. The hot-button issue of creating a protected class out of the term “sexual orientation” that may cause conservatives to vote against the bill has apparently been sidestepped. The bill states only that the committee will study discrimination “on the basis of being in a sexual or gender based minority.”

“It will be the one piece of legislation dealing with the LGBT community that is pretty well guaranteed to pass. It will create an opportunity for study this summer that has measurable results and measurable expectations,” she said. “It also will invite stakeholders to come to the table: the Labor Commission, Equality Utah, the Sutherland Institute, as well as groups and individuals who have experienced discrimination in the workplace and housing.”

“I’m very hopeful that this kind of dialog is going to be as productive as we anticipate. It is brought forth with the clearest and most positive of intentions. It is not one-sided; it is not a trap; and this is by no means selling out our community.”

Johnson is still hoping that community members will still talk to their representatives about issues that face them.

“Talk about your families, talk about your partners, talk about the need for rights and hopefully, in this year of no pressure from legislation, we’ll find legislators more receptive and more open to have this type of dialog.

Johnson is welcoming feedback to the compromise.

“I know it’s disappointing that we’re not going to have bills run that we have in the past,” she said. “The silver lining is that this positive dialog is about to begin. That, with your help can be constructive and productive and lead us toward some great legislation.” Q

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