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Utah's LGBT Anti-Discrimination Bill May Become Law (Thanks to the Mormon Church)

Gay rights leaders in Utah say it took 10 years of difficult negotiations to finally come this close to passing an LGBT anti-discrimination bill.

by Colleen Curry
Mar 9 2015, 10:10pm

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

An anti-discrimination bill protecting LGBT residents in Utah could be passed into law this week, capping off nearly 10 years of work by gay rights advocates and a sudden reversal by the opposition - including the enormously influential Mormon Church - earlier this year.

The bill includes religious liberty exemptions, a point of contention among gay rights advocates who feared it would allow government employees to refuse marriage to gay couples, but gay rights groups deemed the exemptions acceptable and said they considered the bill an enormous win for the gay community.

Utah's state Senate voted on Friday to approve the bill, which would ban employers and landlords from discriminating against LGBT people. The bill now moves to the state's House of Representatives, where it will receive its first hearing on Monday afternoon. The bill will likely be brought to the floor as early as Tuesday for a vote, according to state Senator Jim Debachus, who has worked on the legislation for a decade.

"It's been 10 years of my life," Debachus told VICE News today. "I'm very nervous. I am counting every vote, not taking anything for granted."

Governor Gary Herbert said he will sign the bill into law if it passes, and his office has already begun planning a bill-signing ceremony for Thursday night, according to Troy Williams, director of the gay rights group Equality Utah. If the law passes, Utah will be the 19th state to pass anti-discrimination legislation to protect LGBT people.

Related: Mormon Church's Newfound Support of Gay Rights Tied to Religious Exemption Law

Williams said the bill is the crowning achievement of years of in-depth discussion with church leaders and conservative legislators and represents a model for how opposing sides can work together to pass meaningful laws. The Human Rights Campaign on Friday issued a statement praising the Mormon Church for showing "a willingness to align with others on the right side of history."

The discussions and negotiations that eventually led to the current bill began back in 2009, after a contentious year in which the church supported Proposition 8 in California, which temporarily banned gay marriage in that state after it had already been legalized. Williams credited Debachus with gathering together gay leaders and church leaders after that bitter year of fighting to begin discussions about how the two communities could coexist.

"He was relentless in reaching out to political opponents and adversaries in the [Mormon] church and introducing us to people," Williams recalled. "In 2008 or 2009 I guess he came to me and said 'Troy, I need you to come meet leaders of the church.' I'm a returned missionary, so I grew up in the church, but it was so soon after Prop 8 that I was like, 'really, we have to go talk to these people?' He said yeah you have to come meet and enter into dialogue, that's the only way things can change. So we met and began years of dialogue. That created the groundwork," Williams said.

Debachus said that the initial meeting included a group of five LGBT community leaders and representatives of the church and was supposed to last a half-hour. It lasted two hours, and the group kept meeting for years.

"Our community, the LGBT community and the [Mormon] community in Utah was at war in 2009," Debachus told VICE News today. "It was awful, there was no communication, no discussion...[But] we've come to know each other's culture, and it has been one of the most endearing things I've ever done in my entire life and I think church feels same way."

In the intervening years, the gay rights advocates had some success in getting municipalities around the state to pass anti-discrimination bills, but every time they tried to introduce a statewide bill, it was met with opposition. The legislature is controlled by Republicans, but even the state's Democrats lean conservative, Williams noted. The group tried for seven straight years to get the bill to where it is today, Williams said.

"The ordinances allowed us to get in front of city councils, mayors, and elected officials, and tell our stories over and over again, to have our constituents reach out to elected officials and tell their stories, and over time hearts started to open," he said. "It's back to Harvey Milk saying you've got to come out. People have a hard time voting against you if they know you."

The turning point in negotiations came when Utah's ban on gay marriage was struck down as unconstitutional by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court declined to give it another look, Williams said. That was in October, 2014, and Williams said he feared the decision would prompt an anti-gay backlash when the legislature began its new session in 2015, but the opposite happened. 

"It forced a difficult conversation," Williams said. "They said let's get together and talk and work this out. That surprised me and surprised all of us. I have become friends with legislators. I never imagined we would sit down and generally care for them, and I believe it's mutual admiration."

Many Republican Senators expressed support of the bill on the Senate floor Friday. State Senator Todd Weiler told the Senate that he understood that transgender people were different than him but that they had rights, and those rights should be protected, according to the Assocaited Press. State Senator Howard Stephenson compared the discrimination historically faced by Mormons to the prejudices against the LGBT community.

"America thought that Mormons were sexually deviant because they chose to share their love in a way that was not conventional," Stephenson said, referring to polygamy.

Related: FDA Announces Plans to End Lifetime Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

The bill has religious liberty carve-outs that allow churches and charities like the Boy Scouts of America to exclude LGBT people. But Williams was adamant that those exemptions were consistent with anti-discrimination bills elsewhere in the nation and necessary to allow gay communities and religious communities to coexist. Gay rights groups didn't want to force churches to change their rules to allow gay members, he said.

"This is a state that was founded by a church and as such has a significant influence," he said. "I think Utah has a unique demographic, it's not something you can copy and paste into other states but what we've been able to show is how people from different backgrounds can come together, have difficult conversations, and craft legislation that benefits all people. We don't believe LGBT rights and religious freedom have to be in opposition to each other. We have to coexist."

A separate anti-discrimination bill in the legislature includes provisions for allowing clerks or justices to refuse to perform gay marriages, but it wouldn't affect a gay couple's ability to get married, Williams said. The clerks or justices would have to be "all-in or all-out," that is, if they chose not to perform same-sex marriages, they wouldn't perform any marriages. That bill, he said, has less momentum in the legislature. 

"Equality Utah opposes that bill. Public servants should serve all people, that's our position," he said, noting that the author of the bill "just wants to provide an out for people if it goes against their deeply held religious beliefs."

The group hopes to keep up the momentum in the next legislative session by trying to pass a public accommodations bill that would make it illegal for businesses, hotels, restaurants, and taxis to discriminate based on sexuality or gender expression.

But the bill this week, they say, is a good start, and a model for how legislators around the country should work together.

"What we're doing is not just passing a nondiscrimination bill, but saying that people who start from the horrors of 2008 can actually sit down, take their jackets off, roll up their sleeves, and begin to understand and respect ach other and find common ground," Debachus said.

"It's exactly what Washington needs," Debachus said. "That's why I'm so excited about this. It's hopefully a template for how people in totally different worlds can learn to not just appreciate and communicate but to find common ground, particularly in the US, particularly now." 

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen