LGBT advocates gather outside the Utah Capitol building.
(KCPW News) In present form, the Utah Anti-Discrimination Act and the Utah Fair Housing Act protect any person from discrimination based on any of the following criteria: race; color; sex; pregnancy, childbirth, or any pregnancy-related conditions; age, if the individual is 40 years of age or older; religion; national origin; or disability.
Senate Bill 100, an exact copy of Senate Bill 262 of last year, would amend those two laws to add two more items to that list: “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” There is no federal law against discriminating on those bases, but over 20 states have some form of LGBT anti-discrimination protection in place. Furthermore, according to LGBT advocacy group Equality Utah, 19 municipalities in Utah—including Salt Lake City, West Valley City, and Ogden—have passed ordinances banning LGBT discrimination.
But the fact remains that there is no statewide ban on LGBT housing and employment discrimination, and after five years of trying, no bill has made to the Senate floor for debate.
But Senator Steve Urquhart of St. George is undeterred. He’s brought the bill back this year, and the reason is simple: it didn’t pass last year. And he believes it’s only a matter of time before legislation like this becomes law.
“I think we know where this is going to end,” Urquhart said. “I think that every state is going to have a non-discrimination law from employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. More and more states are moving in that direction. Utah will move in that direction.”
Of course, not everyone agrees that LGBT-nondiscrimination is inevitable. Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum, an opponent of the bill, believes SB 100 creates a “special class” of people at the expense of others.
“As you try to eliminate discrimination with one group of people, you end up creating another class of people, and then you discriminate against all people,” Ruzicka said. “The bill is poorly written and just not done in a way that’s appropriate.”
Ruzicka is particularly concerned about scenarios involving gender identity issues.
“Anybody can declare to the world, ‘I think I’m a girl, so I am a girl,’ if it’s a man. Or vice versa if it’s a woman,” she said. “And then, they just go to their employer then and tell their employer that they perceive that they are a girl, or they think they are a girl, and announce that they’ll be using the women’s restroom or shower facilities or dressing room.”
When asked if there’s a way her concerns could be reconciled with an LGBT discrimination bill, Ruzicka was skeptical.
“As long you leave the word ‘gender identity’ in, or even ‘sexual orientation,’ then there’s no way to adjust it, because you could take out the bathroom language, but if you left in ‘gender identity,’ all it takes is one lawsuit—like it has happened in other states—and you have to abide by what the definition of gender identity [is],” Ruzicka said.
Concerns like Ruzicka’s have been circulating around SB 100, but Urquhart said many of those concerns are unwarranted.
“That’s my job, is to sort out sense from nonsense,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart pointed out some misconceptions he has encountered: “There are so many stories about what the bill purports to do that are simply fiction. You hear stories that this will require cake-bakers to make cakes for same-sex marriages. That is a lie. That it will require florists to provide services for same-sex marriages. That is a lie. You hear that this will force schoolchildren to use bathrooms with people of opposite gender. That is a lie.”
He continued, “There are some bathroom provisions in employment. Transgender individuals, they do go to the bathroom, and so I think this is something that really is just intended to stir fear and passion and just really create a lot of confusion regarding what is a pretty straightforward bill.”
The bill’s language may be straightforward, but the political climate for SB 100 couldn’t be more complicated. With the state currently wrapped up in a legal battle over same-sex marriage, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has advised the Utah legislature not to address issues related to the case. Some senators, including Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, believe SB 100 is one such issue to put off for later.
“I really believe that the discussion of that bill—the rhetoric that goes along with the discussion of that bill—may affect what happens in the courts, and we want to make sure that’s not the case,” Okerlund said.
But Urquhart argued that the same-sex marriage debate and LGBT anti-discrimination are two separate issues.
“It doesn’t speak to same-sex marriage in any way, shape, or form,” Urquhart said. “This gives me the opportunity to clearly say that: that whatever happens on same-sex marriage—which will happen through the courts—that now is something that this legislation is clearly not going to impact.”
Still, with a legislature that seems unwilling to touch LGBT issues this year, it seems unlikely that SB 100 will find its way to the governor’s desk—even as the governor has shown interest in supporting anti-discrimination legislation.
Urquhart believes that Utah will eventually pass anti-discrimination laws for sexual orientation and gender identity, and he intends to bring the bill to the Senate until that happens.
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