‘Capitol 13’ protesters appear in Salt Lake court

Exactly nine months after 13 supporters of an LGBT nondiscrimination bill were arrested for blocking access to a legislative committee hearing, the group finally faced their first day in a courtroom. A pre-trial conference was held for the group, since dubbed the “Capitol 13,” in Salt Lake City Justice Court before Judge Catherine Roberts. The possibility of the protesters accepting a plea deal was off the table, as each wanted to go forward to be heard. They face charges of class B misdemeanor disrupting a meeting, which carries a maximum six months in jail and $1000 fine.

This hearing was the first in what is likely to be months of court hearings. The outcome was a date for a scheduling conference. The protesters’ attorneys — Danielle Hawkes, Christopher Wharton and Ron Yengich — will meet then with the judge and a Salt Lake City prosecutor to determine what the judge will allow as part of the trial and to set a timeline for the hearings.

“At the next hearing, we will be able to ask the judge if she will allow such defenses as what was in the [Salt Lake] Tribune on Sunday,” Hawkes said.

On Sunday, an op-ed by attorneys Brett L. Tolman and Paul C. Burke was published in the Tribune saying that a trial of the protesters could reveal animus on the part of Utah legislators.

“Their eventual trial may open a door into the inner workings of the Legislature and may expose legislative animus against gay people,” the pair wrote. They noted that the committee meeting was chaired by Utah Sen. Stuart Reid, a long-time opponent of any pro-LGBT legislation.

“Having been accused of disrupting the work of the Senate Education Committee by allegedly causing its meeting to be canceled, the Capitol 13 can be expected to call the committee’s chairman, Sen. Stuart Reid, to testify. If Reid testifies that the meeting was not disrupted or was cancelled for other reasons, the Capitol 13 should be acquitted,” they wrote. “On the other hand, if Reid testifies that the Capitol 13 disrupted the meeting, defense attorneys for the Capitol 13 may seek to undermine his credibility by revealing his bias against gay people. Defense attorneys may suggest that Reid felt contempt for the Capitol 13 and may have canceled this committee meeting in order to prompt the criminal charges against the non-violent protesters.”

Reid was outspoken last December in his opinion of U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling that struck the voter-approved Amendment 3 and other laws that prohibited same-sex marriage by saying the decision was “in effect massacring the institution of traditional marriage and morality.” He has called “homosexual activity” immoral and pulled no punches that he was, indeed, being discriminatory.

“As a member of the committee, I voted against [SB262, the 2013 nondiscrimination bill,] because I believe that homosexual activity is immoral. In an effort to be authentic, I admitted that my belief was in fact discriminating and that discrimination was the reason I could not vote for the legislation.”

Anti-LGBT animus was a part of the arguments made in court before Shelby in the Kitchen v. Herbert same-sex marriage decision. Future litigation on any topic involving Utah’s gay and transgender community could use such testimony by the senator, and/or any other legislator summoned, as proof of animus in the Utah State Legislature.

“By defending themselves at trial, the Capitol 13 may now have the opportunity to develop proof that the non-discrimination bill was killed by legislators with animus against Utah’s gay community,” Tolman and Burke wrote.

Protester Troy Williams spoke to the press after the hearing, saying “The Capitol 13 represents a segment of the gay, trans and ally community who loves our state and loves our nation, and recognizes that the State has failed to address our needs.”

“We blocked the committee meeting in the same way that all pro-LGBT bills have been blocked by the [Utah State] Legislature,” he said. “As we have been blocked, we chose to participate in the proud tradition of this nation — civil disobedience.”

He said that he hopes the moratorium on any LGBT-related bills will be lifted now that same-sex marriage is the “law of the land” in Utah.

“We will join once again with Sen. Steve Urquhart [R-St. George] on a bill for basic protections in housing and employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” Williams said.

“We belong in the People’s House,” Williams continued. “We are the constituents of the legislators.”

Also arrested in February were Michelle and Gail Turpin, Donna Weinholtz, Gail Murdock, Jake Hanson, Orlando Luna, Dustin Trent, Matt Conway, Kevin Garner, Steven Germann, Angela Isaacs and Matthew Landis.

Michael Aaron

Michael Aaron is the editor and publisher of QSaltLake. He has been active in Utah's gay and lesbian community since the early 80s and published two publications then and in the 90s.

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