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Lawmakers aiming to balance religious rights and anti-discrimination

Lawmakers aiming to balance religious rights and anti-discrimination

(Chris Curtis/

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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday lawmakers need to address both religious liberty and anti-discrimination this session, preferably in a single bill that makes it clear the state's LGBT community is protected from discrimination.

"I would be very disappointed if I had a bill for religious freedom that did not include anti-discrimination," the governor told reporters. "Whether that rises to the level of a veto, I guess we need to see, but I would be very unhappy."

Herbert also said that even though it doesn't matter to him "as long as we get the right results," the legislation may need to refer specifically to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"If we need to spell out LGBT to make sure that the gay community knows they are part of all of Utah" that the state is trying to avoid discriminating against, the governor said, "that doesn't cause me heartburn."

The governor's comments came as lawmakers attempt to balance religious rights and anti-discrimination, which could hinge on how they interpret statements The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made on the issues last month.

Legislators are at odds over whether to specifically carve out protections for LGBT Utahns while at the same time guaranteeing religious freedom.

"It comes down to the interpretation of the meaning of what the church said," said Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi. "The question is: Can we ever get to a middle ground?"

Asked whether that would be easier without the church publicly stating its position, Anderegg said, "Easier? No. Less muddy? Yes."

Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said the Legislature "through our process is trying to figure out what it all means."

I would be very disappointed if I had a bill for religious freedom that did not include anti-discrimination.

–Gov. Gary Herbert

The LDS Church called on government officials to protect religious rights while also protecting LGBT Utahns from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations such as restaurants, hotels and transportation.

Church leaders also emphasized that people should not be forced to perform services that go against their religious beliefs.

Anderegg has a bill that would allow people authorized to solemnize marriages to decline if it violates their religious beliefs. But he said he's still looking at options on how best to balance religious exemptions while guaranteeing access for all, and he doesn't know whether he'll run the bill at all.

The topic of performing marriages came up during the exchanges the governor and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Utah, had with reporters Thursday.

Herbert said he would “probably respectfully decline” if asked to perform a wedding for a same-sex couple. He said he would not want to conduct a same-sex marriage.

“I’m not obligated to do it. It’s not like a clerk or somebody who has a government responsibility. I just have the ability to perform a marriage,” the governor said.

The House speaker, however, said he would officiate at such a wedding.

“I don’t have any problem with it,” Hughes said. “If I was asked, I probably would act within the responsibilities I have without pause.”

Herbert said it's not going to be easy to come up with a balance between religious liberty and anti-discrimination, but said there needs to be a way to address, for example, a baker being asked to decorate a cake with a swastika.

"It is a challenging thing. It’s not just about gay rights or anything else. It’s about when do you cross the line into my own personal view of what I think is right or wrong based on my own religious persuasion," Herbert said.

Still, the governor said it's the right time to tackle the issue, following recent court decisions allowing same-sex marriage and LDS Church leaders calling for action.

"I think we ought to get ahead of the curve on this and pass an appropriately balanced religious freedom law as well as anti-discrimination for the gay community and all Utahns," he said, that can be a model for the rest of the country.

Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, is proposing a bill that would add religious liberty provisions to the state's anti-discrimination and fair housing laws.

I don't find anti-discrimination and religious liberty to be opposed to each other, or different concepts. I think we're talking about the same thing.

–House Speaker Greg Hughes

HB322 would guarantee "perfect toleration of religious sentiment" and that "rights of conscience shall never be infringed." It also says the legal exercise of religious liberty is a recognized defense to claims of discrimination. The bill provides for fair access to employment and housing, but does not include specific protections against discrimination of LGBT people.

"I think LaVar's bill is a good balance," Anderegg said. "But I don’t think the LGBT community will ever get on board simply because it does not put those four words in — sexual orientation, gender identity."

Anderegg said it's not necessary to add to the list of protect classes in Utah that include race, religion and sex.

"We're already down to K. Do we want to go Z? Who else is going to want a protected class?" he said.

GOP Senate leaders said Christensen's bill is just one way to approach the issue.

"My question would be how involved was the LGBT community with that bill," Niederhauser said.

House leaders had little to say about Christensen's bill, referring reporters to a statement the lawmaker issued about wanting to protect the free exercise of religion as well as employment and housing rights for all.

"I sincerely want to make sure that in the vital areas of housing and employment, all persons are fully respected and protected," Christensen said Thursday.

The LGBT rights group Equality Utah came out strongly against the bill, as did faith leaders from 22 congregations, including Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian and Jewish.

On Thursday, the clergy signed a letter urging the Legislature to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah's existing anti-discrimination law by passing SB100. They also prayed for the bill's passage during a rally at the Capitol.

Sen. Steve Urqhuart's measure would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment. The St. George Republican sees it as a stand-alone bill because the law already protects people of faith against discrimination and his proposal would add LGBT Utahns.

Hughes said it is too soon to "stick a stake in the ground" about any specific provisions of the bill, including whether it should refer to the LGBT community.

"I don’t find anti-discrimination and religious liberty to be opposed to each other, or different concepts. I think we’re talking about the same thing," the speaker said, treating all Utahns with respect.

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