Utah Senate committee passes statewide anti-bias bill

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A Utah Senate committee voted to move a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance to a vote by the full Utah Senate. The Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee voted to approve the bill in a 4-3 vote.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Steven Urquhart, R-St. George, and faced strict opposition from two of the largest lobbying groups in the state — Utah Eagle Forum and the Sutherland Institute. Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said the bill went too far by offering protections for transgender Utahns. She said the bill would create a special class and would be a dangerous addition to Utah code.

“Of course we all know our heavenly father would want us to treat all our brothers and sisters with respect. But sometimes we disagree and sometimes those disagreements need to be,” Ruzicka said. “This is the language that would be put in the code. If we put it in one part, it will move through all of the code… Does this give special rights to a group? I don’t believe this is appropriate language to put that into code.”

Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, called the bill a “public relations” stunt and said the bill would not stand up on its own merits.

“The legislative politics of nondiscrimination has more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera. But we’re policy people and it’s difficult to advise on public relations,” Mero said.  “After five or six years of hearing this bill, and every year the bill is rejected, I’m sure the proponents might be a little frustrated. But when you can’t win on its merits, all that’s left is to ask legislators, ‘Pretty please?’”

However, proponents of the bill argued that making a uniform law for all companies and landlords would help protect Utahns, start community discussions and make Utah a more attractive location for business and tourism. Michael Weinholtz, CEO of CHG Healthcare, said his company cannot attract the best talent while discrimination is still legal in the state. He said the bill would help his business be more competitive and, in turn, help Utah.

Openly gay Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill would not infringe upon anyone’s religious freedom or ability to think. The bill would allow queer Utahns equal access to housing and employment.

“What we have as a responsibility when we govern is to try and make the rules that all of us can get together on,” Dabakis said. “We need to give as much respect and as much dignity to each other as possible.”

Bill sponsor Urquhart said his opinion on the matter has changed over time and he’s disappointed to see so many people oppose his efforts.

“There’s a lot of nasty stuff that’s being said about me and my family,” Urquhart said. “Because I’m sponsoring this I’ve experienced a lot of love and some pretty intense hatred. I’ve experienced it about a week because of this issue. But we have a lot of people who are experiencing it for a lifetime.”

Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said he could not support the bill because he believes homosexuality is immoral and passing the bill would condone the activity.

“There are very few people that would want LGBT individuals to be discriminated against. But what we’re asking of this committee is about policy and determining, as the people’s representatives, what are the values we’re going to advance and taking into account many facets of morality,” Reid said. “I believe homosexuality is immoral… As long as I feel that way I can’t approve a policy that encourages acceptance.”

The committee heard testimony from six people who opposed the bill and six who supported it. The bill will move to the Senate floor for a full vote. If passed, it will need approval from the Utah House and governor before becoming law.

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