In just a short week, both the Utah House and Senate have passed a bill that would protect LGBT people from discrimination in employment and housing. The legislation was agreed upon by LGBT leaders and officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which helped fast-track it through the state legislature. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) is expected to sign the bill in a special ceremony Thursday evening.
The bill, SB 296, includes broad religious exemptions, but for the most part, they are no different than religious exemptions that already existed for other protected classes. Unlike other states, Utah uniquely exempts religious organizations from all nondiscrimination protections. This is what allowed LGBT activists to support the bill while opposing similar religious exemptions in other states; sexual orientation and gender identity were not being singled out to allow for religious-based discrimination.
The legislature also passed what appears to be a companion bill, SB 297, which would allow government employees to refuse to offer marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They must, however, designate somebody else to issue those licenses. It also ensures that religious officials never have to recognize or celebrate a marriage that violates their faith, and that the government cannot retaliate against them for their refusal. LGBT activists were not consulted on this bill, and were less eager to support it. As Equality Utah noted when it was first introduced, “We are worried that broad individual exemptions may be granted to an unlimited amount of people. We will not support any legislation that may adversely impact the fundamental rights of LGBT Utahns.”
The Utah House also passed a separate bill that had been introduced long before the LGBT/Mormon compromise bill. HB 322, the so-called “Religious Liberty Act,” mirrors other state religious liberty bills that seek to allow individuals to make a claim of religious liberty when they feel that the government is imposing on their beliefs. LGBT activists have blasted it as a “license to discriminate,” with Kate Kendell of the National Center for Lesbian Rights claiming that it would “utterly eviscerate” the protections in SB 296.
According to the New York Times, the Mormon Church’s support for the legislation has created a rift between it and the two other religious institutions that have previously been its allies against LGBT equality, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and Catholic Church. Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said that he had been trying to convince Mormon leaders for months that “this is not the right strategy.” In a sense, both proponents and opponents of LGBT equality seem to agree that Utah’s bill should not be a model for other states.
Despite its imperfections, Utah’s bill is one of the few examples of protections for LGBT people growing across the United States. Many other states are still considering bills, like those offered in the name of “religious liberty,” that would actually make it legally easier to discriminate against LGBT people, if not criminalize transgender people just for using the restroom.