SALT LAKE CITY — Gay rights activists locked arms on the Capitol steps Thursday demanding to be heard just as they did at a legislative committee meeting earlier this year that ended in their arrests.
The self-described "Capitol 13" were charged with a class B misdemeanors in Salt Lake City Justice Court this week for disrupting the Feb. 10 hearing in the Senate Building. The group wanted lawmakers to discuss an anti-discrimination bill.
"The democratic process was being obstructed to us, so we illustrated that by obstructing the doors," said Troy Williams, the group's leader.
Sen. President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he believes the charges are appropriate. He said he welcomes rallies and protests at the Capitol, but the demonstrators went too far because it kept legislators from conducting business.
"We're not here to throw the book at people," Niederhauser said. "There are ways to be heard besides blocking the way to a committee room."
And although Niederhauser said the group's actions hurt its cause, the 2015 session might be the time to revisit the non-discrimination bill along with religious liberty issues.
"We can't continue to just not debate things," he said.
Demand for debate
The 13 men and women are scheduled to appear in court Sept. 26. Williams said they intend to fight the charges because they have a right to peacefully protest and petition the government for change.
The protestors and their lawyers, including prominent defense attorney Ron Yengich, gathered Thursday to again call on lawmakers to consider a statewide law that prohibits discrimination in housing and the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Williams said members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have done everything they can from sending emails to holding protests to get lawmakers' attention.
"No matter how we approach the Legislature, they turn their back on us," he said.
Yengich said legislators don't listen to the LGBT community because they don't like what it has to say.
"If you play only to your base, then you're no better than people who smoke crack because that's what crack is — it's base cocaine. And what does that do to you? It makes you focus on that and that alone to the exclusion of everything else," he said.
Anti-discrimination legislation of the past
An anti-discrimination bill has come up in the Legislature for six straight years, including the last two when Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, sponsored the measure. His bill cleared a Senate committee in 2013 but was not debated on the floor.
In the 2014 session earlier this year, leaders in the Republican-controlled Senate and House put the bill and religious liberty measures on hold.
"I don't want to get into a war of words with Ron Yengich or the LGBT community," Niederhauser said. "I believe completely that we did the right thing last year."
GOP leaders held the bills because of the emotion surrounding the same-sex marriage litigation, he said.
Now that there's "not so much dust flying" on that issue, Niederhauser said, the upcoming session might be the right time to consider a proposed anti-discrimination law.
A Deseret News/KSL poll in January found that 72 percent of residents say Utah should make it against the law to fire someone from a job solely because they are gay or transgender. It also showed 67 percent favor a law that would make it illegal to deny a person housing solely because they are gay or transgender.
UtahPolicy.com found that 59 percent of Utahns would either strongly or somewhat favor a statewide law banning employment and housing discrimination based on sexual preference in a poll released last week.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted both surveys.