After two hours of emotional testimony, Sen. Stephen Urquhart’s Senate Bill 296, Antidiscrimination and Religious Freedom Amendments, was unanimously passed by the Senate Business and Labor Committee to the floor of the Utah Senate.
The bill was explained to committee members by Washington & Lee School of Law professor Robin Wilson. She is a scholar in religious liberties and family law and co-editor of the book, “Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts.” She was brought in to help facilitate the language of the bill among all of the disparate parties.
“This bill is nothing, if not historic,” she said as she explained the details of the bill, including that it sufficiently addresses nondiscrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well as protects the speech and actions in the workplace of those espousing religious beliefs.
Asked if the bill would be upheld in a court, Wilson said that she knew better than to make such promises, but the language of non-severability would encourage people to “stand down,” since a court striking one part of the law would nullify the entire law.
Much of the talk centered on workplace restroom facilities, which sponsors said would be up to the employer and generally means a unisex, single-stall facility, much like what is available at the Utah State Capitol and most business buildings in the state.
Eight people were lined up to testify in favor of the bill, and 12 people against. Ultra-conservative groups such as the Eagle Forum, Berean Baptist Church, Celebration of Marriage, Utah Women’s Forum and a family formerly behind “America Forever,” who had sent out mailers calling homosexuality “anti-species,” filled the committee room with speakers, who spoke to their fears that the bill would allow teachers to cross-dress in schools, include homosexuality and transexualism in school curriculum, and enter perversion into state law.
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, questioned Jonas Rodrigues on his use of the term “pervert.”
“Should perverts have rights,” Weiler asked. Rodrigues said they should, but then went on a continued rant well beyond his allotted time, prompting acting committee chair Sen. Deidre Henderson, R- Spanish Fork, to threaten to have him removed.
But the testimony that drew the most emotion was from those with personal stories, including some of the committee members.
Nika Allgood, a mother of three and an active member of the Mormon Church, said that one of her children was transgender — a fact they discovered at five years of age. She said that she had to reconcile her religious beliefs with her love for her son.
“I want him to have all the opportunities that everyone else has,” she testified.
Marjorie Wilson testified that her father “came out” as a transgender woman and had to leave the state because she could not find a place to live or work.
Drew Reese, a retired soldier-turned-pastor, spoke of a roommate invading his privacy while in school and under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“I had zero protections as a student and service-member,” he said, speaking in favor of the bill.
The Salt Lake City Police Department officer who resigned after he asked to be reassigned from performing at the Utah Pride Parade said he favored the bill, as it may have protected him from punishment.
An eBay representative also spoke in favor of the bill, saying it will help them “maintain a talented workforce.”
Weiler made an impassioned speech as he moved to pass the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor.
“I have never attended a press conference like I saw yesterday, where gay advocates and LDS hierarchy were saying that this is a miraculous process,” he said. “I think there is something really special that is happening with this bill.”
“I’m in a very different place than I was a year ago, than I was two years ago, certainly from where I was five or 10 years go,” he continued. “I’m not going to judge anybody if they are are in a different place in that journey than I am. This is a paradigm shift for many people.”
“I don’t believe there is a big problem in this state with people being discriminated against,” Weiler said. He then broke down with emotion as he explained, “But I think this sends a clear message to thousands of young people struggling with their identity. Who are … struggling with whether they want to stay alive. I think this sends a strong message to our youth, that they play a strong role in our community, and for that reason, I am going to vote yes on this bill.”
The bill passed unanimously on a voice vote and will next be heard on the Senate floor. Weiler said during the hearing that he was happy to hear that the bill will have floor time in the House as well.