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2013 Utah legislative wrap-up

The 2013 Utah Legislature resulted in historic steps for nondiscrimination, a bill aimed at stopping teen suicide and inclusive dating protections. At a rally during the last days of the legislative session, openly gay Sen. Jim Dabakis called the movement important progress and an important start.

We’ve recapped some of the major moments in the session.

Nondiscrimination

Although a bill that would have banned discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation cleared a Utah Senate committee, it never made it to a full Senate vote. Bill sponsor Steven Urquhart, R-St. George, said he was proud of the progress and conversations that were started, but the bill did not have the necessary support to become law.

“We will make sure it’s against the law to discriminate in employment and housing based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” Urquhart said. “This isn’t about special rights. This is about equal rights.”

SB 262 simply would have added a few lines to existing Utah statue about discrimination, he said.

“If we’re for equal rights, let’s vote for equal rights,” he said.

Shortly after the bill died, more than 100 people from various LGBT, minority and allied groups gathered on the steps of the Utah Capitol to show solidarity in the cause of passing a statewide nondiscrimination bill.

Supporters of the bill need to talk to friends and neighbors to help build a coalition of support for the measure so it will be passed next year, Urquhart said. As a part of a coalition, representatives from the NAACP, La Raza and other minority groups spoke at the rally calling on lawmakers to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Legislators who voted for the nondiscrimination bill deserve praise and those who do not yet support it need to receive encouragements, said Archie Archuleta, of the Latino rights group, La Raza.

“Though we lost, it was a good beginning. And next year we promise to beat the hell out of them,” Archuleta said. “Even the frightened characters up there had to listen because right is right and it will always triumph.”

The bill’s process and committee hearing is a large evolution from previous years and an important step forward, Dabakis said. Conversations will continue with lawmakers, community members and religious leaders throughout the year and another bill will be sponsored in the next session, Dabakis said.

“We’ve made a huge leap this year toward equality,” Dabakis said.

The bill’s passage depends on more Utahns voicing their support of the ordinances over the next year and letting legislators know equal protection is a large priority, said Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken.

“Equality Utah works, not just to run legislation, but to pass legislation,” Balken said. “It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the work of Sen. Urquhart and Sen. Dabakis as well as tens of thousands of Utahns to take the bill to where it is today.”

Balken said Equality Utah will continue working in Utah municipalities and with other lawmakers to advance similar ordinances around the state.

Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints supported a similar measure in Salt Lake City in 2009, church spokespeople have been silent on the matter since. Dabakis said conversations about gaining the church’s vocal support for a statewide law will continue over the next few weeks.

“Look along generational lines. More and more people are getting it. I am very optimistic for the future. I am a little late to the party, but I’m very glad I’m here,” Urquhart said.

Second-parent adoption

Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored a second-parent adoption bill which would have allowed unmarried partners to jointly adopt children. While Utah law does not single out gay couples, the ban on unmarried partners from adopting effectively bars gay couples from jointly adopting.

The bill never received a committee assignment or public debate. Although she has run the bill since 2008, it has never been voted on by a full House or Senate body.

“I hear the horrific stories of where a child knows two individuals and the biological mom or dad dies and this other partner, who this child knows, has no legal right to that child,” Chavez-Houck said. “I can’t imagine being in that situation, having lost one parent and the other parent isn’t your parent. I think that’s a horrible thing to do to a family.”

While the bill has never made it out of committee, it is an important issue for many gay family members and those who would like to adopt in the future, she said.

Bullying

The first bill aimed at bullying and preventing teen suicide cleared the Utah Legislature this year. The bill requires school districts to offer seminars on teen suicide and bullying. It also requires schools to notify parents if any bullying or suicidal intentions are reported.

Bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said he sponsored the bill after hearing about student suicides in his area several years ago. He said a father of one of the children who committed suicide asked him to help.

Nine of ten gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students report having been bullied, according to a 2011 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network report. The study also finds LGBT teens are three times more likely to report being bullied than straight teens and more than 30 percent have attempted suicide.

Dating Violence Protections

Utahns who are attacked or threatened by a dating partner will be able to seek a protective order after the Utah Legislature passed a new dating violence protection act.

Sen. LaVarr Christensen tried to insert an amendment into the bill that could have barred gays and lesbians from seeking the same protective orders. Christensen, who has sponsored anti-gay legislation in the past and is one of the authors of Utah’s Amendment 3, wanted to define dating as a precursor to marriage. However, since gay couples are unable to get married in Utah, proponents of the bill feared it would unfairly discriminate against same-sex dating partners.

“If they’re going to talk about a dating relationship, it recognizes there is such a thing as public morality,” Christensen said. “We don’t look the other way and say there aren’t standards that apply to any situation prior to marriage.”

Sen. Scott Jenkins said he was not sure the bill was necessary and said when couples start dating there is exploration and “rough housing.”

Christensen’s proposed amendment was not passed and the bill went through to passage in the House and Senate.

Alcohol

Although a bill that would have removed a requirement for new Utah restaurants to construct a Zion Curtain cleared the Utah House, it did not make it through the Senate. The so-called Zion Curtain requires Utah restaurants built or opened since 2009 to have a 7-foot-2 barrier to block restaurant patrons from viewing where alcoholic drinks are prepared or poured.

Sen. John Valentine, R-Provo, sponsored the original bill instating Utah’s Zion Curtain and he led the effort to keep the wall in place.

“It changes it into a bar-like atmosphere,” Valentine said.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, tried to remove the wall and argued that there is no clear evidence the sight barrier has any positive impact or stops underage drinking. Instead, he said the wall unfairly punishes new restaurants and gives Utah a bad reputation for being unfair and having strange liquor laws.

“We have no evidence that they do what they were intended to do,” Wilcox said of the wall. “The average Utahn doesn’t walk into a Chili’s and see a bar.”

There were some changes to Utah alcohol legislation, including creating a master license that will allow restaurant chains to get a single license. Liquor, wine and beer tastings were also given an OK from the Utah House and Senate.

All of the bills mentioned still need approval from Utah Governor Gary Herbert.

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