Utah's anti-discrimination bill hailed as a better way

Friday , April 03, 2015 - 9:59 AM

OGDEN — Amid the heated flap over Indiana’s new religious liberties law, presumed Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush pointed to Senate Bill 296, Utah’s new anti-discrimination and religious freedom law, as a “better approach.”

In a transcript of remarks made during a closed-door fundraiser in Silicon Valley, the former Florida governor told supporters: “And so Utah went about this, but what they did is they brought all the constituencies together, and this included the leadership of the LDS Church and [LGBT] community, and said how can we forge a consensus where we can protect religious freedom and also create an environment where we’re not discriminating against people. And they figured it out, and they passed a law. There wasn’t a bunch of yelling and screaming.”

Utah’s SB 296, sponsored by Stephen Urquhart and Stuart Adams in the Senate, and Brad Dee in the House, added sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination protections for housing and employment, while at the same time expanding exemptions for religious institutions and their affiliates, and protecting religious expression.

Bush is among several who have taken note of Utah’s landmark legislation that managed to meld two hot-button interests without lighting anything on fire. Time Magazine recently published “What Indiana Could Learn From Utah About Gay Tolerance.”

Bush’s description of Utah’s action — “forge a consensus” — summarized the lengthy and sometimes agonizing road stakeholders traveled to reach that mountaintop moment on March 12 when Gov. Gary Herbert signed SB 296 into law in a crowded Capitol rotunda.

A matter of faith

On the night of March 11, Dee, R-Washington Terrace, shared emotional details of his own personal journey as he presented SB 296 to House colleagues for an up or down vote. A whole section of LGBT supporters seated in the House gallery rose in unison and cheered when the 65-10 vote came down.

Dee, Weber County’s Human Resources director, used his background in equal employment law to help craft similar protections for gay and transgender people. However, his deeply rooted religious beliefs as a longtime Mormon meant that he viewed marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman.

Dee recalled a packed meeting he attended with Urquhart last year where LGBT families showed up en masse, filling the large room and spilling out into the hallway.

“As I listened to their testimony, I could feel that these were great people, these were families,” Dee said. “That was a turning point for me as I understood that it’s not what you are, it’s who you are, which made it much easier to understand what they were talking about. Rather than just thinking about my values, I started thinking about their rights.”

The 64-year-old Dee described the forging of SB 296 as personally significant, crediting faith in part for making it happen.

“It was a spiritual matter for me, something where I knew why I was there and it wasn’t by chance that I was the House sponsor,” Dee said. “I needed to be. That was a long way from where I was a couple of years earlier.”

A pivotal point for Mormons as a whole was the Jan. 27 announcement by church leaders in support of LGBT employment and housing rights as long as religious expression was protected at the same time. However, the LDS Church made it clear that its stance opposing same-sex marriage had not changed.

A matter of love

The LDS Church’s announcement, coming on the second day of Utah’s 45-day legislative session, “made it apparent that we needed to do something,” said Adams, R-Layton. The lifelong Mormon acknowledged that he’s fairly passionate about his bedrock belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

“We all believe we should love one another. Christian principles are easy to listen to but hard to live,” Adams said. “I was so impressed with the church coming out and re-emphasizing many times that their core beliefs have not changed at all, but saying that we’re going to have compassion, tolerance and respect for each other — those are not novel thoughts but are certainly things we should have done.”

For Adams, hammering out the details of SB 296 meant long days at the Capitol and short nights at home.

“It took a while to understand, but once you stood back and tried to look at both sides, it became more apparent what needed to be done,” Adams said. “Everyone needed to be treated the same, and everyone needed to be treated fairly.”

While SB 296 is not perfect, Adams said “we got close.”

“It’s one of the toughest things I’ve done as a legislator,” he added.

A matter of trust

Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, married his longtime partner in December 2013, just hours after a federal judge ruled that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. As the Legislature’s only openly gay member, Dabakis played a key role in shepherding SB 296.

“What is important about the Utah compromise is not necessarily the language of the bill. Utah has some peculiarities that may or may not fit other states’s needs,” Dabakis said. “But what was unique about SB 296 was the process.”

That road less traveled actually began in 2009, Dabakis said. when members of the business community, the LGBT community and LDS Church began meeting in search of common ground after “the horrors of Prop 8,” referring to California’s same-sex marriage ban that passed in 2008 with significant backing from the LDS Church.

That initial 45-minute meeting extended for 2 ½ hours, Dabakis said, describing it as tenuous, awkward and a “soul-shaking experience.” But it was the first of many, a building block in the structure that later became SB 296.

“It was a long, torturous, difficult process that ended up where no one got 100 percent of what they wanted, but everyone got 90 percent,” Dabakis said.

Through that process, relationships formed and bonds of trust were established — those connections helped to cement SB 296 in the session’s waning days.

“It’s this process of sitting down with everybody, rolling up our sleeves, understanding what everyone else is thinking, not giving up our principles, having civility and respect, then coming together in support of a bill that’s good for everyone,” Dabakis said. “Toward the end, it all turned into trust. We were frantically negotiating the last few days, and by then we’d established a great deal of trust.”

Dabakis, 61, said he grew up as a Mormon and served an LDS mission in 1973. That background helped him bridge the gap between Utah’s LGBT and LDS communities.

“Mormons have a special blessing when they’re in their teens; mine was that I’d be called to serve among my people,” Dabakis said of his mission call to San Francisco.

Beyond safeguarding religious expression and basic LGBT rights, Dabakis believes that SB 296 also signals to gay Mormon kids all over Utah that “they have a place.”

“It had to do with thousands and thousands of Mormon parents of gay kids who felt they no longer had to choose between their religion and their children,” Dabakis said.

Making it last

Ogden resident Turner Bitton, who serves as development director for OUTreach Resource Centers, said that he’s very happy with Utah’s new law.

“It shows a lot of genuine conversations occurred between key stakeholders,” Bitton said. “The alternative was an Indiana-style law which doesn’t solve any of the underlying issues, but just gives another opportunity for lines to be drawn and sides to be taken.”

The nonprofit OUTreach Resource Centers first launched in 2005 to address the needs of gay and transgender youth who have been ostracized, bullied and often end up homeless.

“Equality Utah, the LDS Church and everyone came together on this incredible bill,” Bitton said. “The great thing about it, in addition to its substance and enforceability, is that it’s a strong statement from the LDS Church that in their culture they do not support discrimination . . . you can’t even put a price on how valuable that symbolism is.”

Camille Neider, an attorney who lives with her wife and children in North Ogden, also praised SB 296.

“Everyone should be proud of the result,” Neider said. “It puts down on paper what is common sense, that we should treat people with respect and they shouldn’t be discriminated against because of who they are.”

But Neider hopes the groundbreaking law stays intact after the euphoria of the hard-fought accomplishment starts to fade.

“I hope that everyone is cautious in the future in trying to now gut it,” Neider said, “Once a decision is made, let’s not try to undermine it behind the scenes.”

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or cmckitrick@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @catmck.

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