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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he would sign a newly filed bill intended to protect religious freedom and LGBT Utahns from discrimination in housing and employment if it reaches his desk.
"It is a good compromise. I think it's a good model for the rest of the country. If we can do it in Utah, other states can do it," Herbert told reporters. "There are aspects of it on both sides that they're going to complain about, but again it's common ground, it's a compromise and I support the effort."
A Senate committee unanimously endorsed SB296 on Thursday. It's scheduled for debate on the Senate floor Friday afternoon.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, introduced the measure Wednesday with backing from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gay rights advocates and civic leaders.
"I think we have a product that we can be extremely proud of that promotes liberty in this state," Urquhart said.
The bill proposes to add sexual orientation and gender identity to Utah's anti-discrimination laws for housing and employment, and clarify exemptions for religious institutions and provide protections for religious expression.
And despite criticism and calls for changes in the Senate Business and Labor Committee hearing, Adams said he intends to stand pat.
"I think we're going to try to defend what we've done," he said afterward.
Some people will see this bill as an insult to injury. This is a win. It's not a loss. This bill is about love.
–Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill sends the message that Utah does not discriminate.
"We're not Alabama," Utah's only openly gay legislator told the committee. "Utahns are not that kind of people."
Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Wood Cross, said many Utahns, himself included, feel the state lost its fight against same-sex marriage. He said it hurts and remains an open wound.
"Some people will see this bill as an insult to injury," he said. "This is a win. It's not a loss. This bill is about love."
Pausing to gather his emotions, Weiler said the bill protects a few facing discrimination but sends a strong message to thousands of young people struggling with who they are and whether they want to live that they play a role in society.
Thursday's hearing largely pitted conservative political activists against LGBT rights advocates.
Some complained that lawmakers are pushing the legislation too quickly.
"This bill is being rushed through faster than anything that I've ever seen. That's not respectful," said Salt Lake resident George Chapman.
Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, said she's never taken a bill more seriously, agonizing over every word and detail.
"I believe this bill strikes a wonderful balance," Henderson said. "I think this bill provides equal access both ways."
Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, asked if the bill would hold up in court, "knowing it's an innovative sort of thing."
University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson, who helped write the proposed law, said she couldn't guarantee that but it would take someone motivated to try to undo it.
"I don’t see people wanting to litigate this around the edges," she said. "You did good for both sides, so everyone should stand down."
The bill includes a nonseverability clause, meaning if any part of it goes down, the entire law goes down.
Those who oppose the bill questioned some of its language and said it needs changes.
Cherilyn Eagar, president of the American Leadership Fund, said the bill redefines sex and does not protect individual religious liberty. She said definitions don't comply with those in the American Psychiatric Association manual.
Abraham Rodriguez said it would allow public school teachers to cross-dress and that nothing could be done about it.
Pastor Dave Mallinak, of the Berean Baptist Church in Ogden, said it's wrong for the state to sanction what God forbids. Sexual orientation, he said, is a choice to not follow God's words on sexuality and its limits.
Bathrooms were an issue for some who wondered to what lengths businesses would have to go to accommodate transgender workers. Others tried to clarify how employees would be allowed to express their personal beliefs without retribution.
Chapman said while the bill protects religious expression in the workplace, it does not protect opting out of a gay pride parade, as a Salt Lake police officer did last year.
That now former officer, Eric Moutsos, testified before the committee Thursday.
This bill is being rushed through faster than anything that I've ever seen. That's not respectful.
–Salt Lake resident George Chapman
"No one should be forced to choose between their job and their conscience," he said.
Moutsos said he didn't want to perform in the parade with his motorcycle squad. He said his superiors told him to keep his personal beliefs at home. He resigned after the department's discrimination investigation became public.
Weiler said he believes the bill would not protect an officer from opting out of working patrol at the parade because that's his job.
"His job is not to celebrate in parades. That's where the protection comes in," he said.
According to the bill, employees may express their religious or moral beliefs as long as they're not disruptive or harassing and don't conflict with their employer's "essential" business interests.
Layton resident Joey Eccleston testified in support of the bill, saying his gay son who will graduate high school this year with honors doesn't know if he wants to say in Utah for fear of being mistreated.
"Keep our family together and other families together because we know this has torn families apart in the past," Eccleston told lawmakers.
SB296 would prohibit employers with 15 or more workers from discriminating against job applicants and employees based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Landlords and property owners with four or more units also would be banned from discriminating against LGBT people.
Protections for employment and housing do not create a special or protected class for other purposes, according to the bill.
Everyone would be afforded the same free-speech protections in their private lives and could not be fired for their religious, personal or political beliefs about marriage, family and sexuality.
The bill seeks to exempt churches and their affiliates, religious schools, small or family-owned businesses, and specifically the Boy Scouts of America. It would not prohibit employers from setting "reasonable" dress and grooming standards and designating sex-specific bathrooms or showers.
It does not contain religious exemptions from nondiscrimination provisions for individuals or for-profit businesses.
The proposed law would take precedence over nondiscrimination ordinances in about 20 Utah cities and counties.