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SALT LAKE CITY — Advocacy groups say a new bill that would let government workers opt out of performing gay marriages undermines compromise legislation that aims to balance nondiscrimination and religious freedom.
Equality Utah, the American Civil Liberties of Utah and LGBT advocates oppose SB297, introduced by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton on Thursday. Both groups favor Adams' other bill, SB296, that includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment.
"We were surprised," said Troy Williams, Equality Utah executive director.
Williams was among those who celebrated the introduction of SB296, which has the backing of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LBGT rights advocates and community leaders. He said Equality Utah was not part of the talks on the other bill.
Salt Lake attorney Michelle Turpin said politically the two bills might not be contradictory but "emotionally they are hugely contradictory … emotionally it's very hurtful."
Equality Utah fears that broad individual exemptions in SB297 might be granted to an unlimited number of people. Williams said it would not support legislation that might adversely impact the fundamental rights of LGBT Utahns.
The bill would allow state and local government workers to opt out of marrying same-sex couples, but they would lose the right to perform any marriages at all.
It also exempts business and professional license holders from serving people if it violates their religious beliefs. The bill further prohibits government from taking action against them for discriminating.
Marina Lowe, ACLU policy and legislative counsel, finds those parts of the bill troubling because she said it gives individuals, in some instances, and licensed providers the ability to discriminate.
When it comes to the county clerk's office, we still don't like the idea that you get to opt out of performing your job as a government official regardless if there's somebody else who's willing to step in and do it.
–Marina Lowe, ACLU policy and legislative counsel
Lowe said the bill, for example, could prevent the Utah Human Rights Commission from investigating a claim of discrimination that SB296 would allow.
"But these are all things that were perhaps overlooked," she said.
Adams has indicated that he intends to work on the bill, which will be presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee today.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, called Adams' new bill a first draft.
"Let's just see how it evolves," he said. Dabakis, the state's only openly gay legislator, worked closely with Adams on the nondiscrimination bill.
Equality Utah, which was deeply involved in drafting the nondiscrimination bill, called SB297 a work in progress. Williams said Equality Utah would work with Adams to make legislation that is good for everyone.
SB297 also lets elected county clerks opt out of solemnizing same-sex marriage but they would have to find someone in or out of the office such as a local pastor who would do it. Religious objectors could not be fired for declining that duty.
Lowe said the ACLU has concerns about that provision but called it less troubling.
"When it comes to the county clerk's office, we still don't like the idea that you get to opt out of performing your job as a government official regardless if there's somebody else who's willing to step in and do it," she said.
Government officials, she said, shouldn't get to pick and choose who they serve.
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson said the marriage deputies in her office have not asked to opt out.
"We don't distinguish between traditional couples and same-sex couples," she said on KSL Newsradio's "Doug Wright Show." "We just treat every couple the same. It's worked very well. My employees have been very willing to do that."
Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, a co-sponsor of the compromise bill, said Adams has the best of intentions and is searching for balanced solutions.
"You don't have LGBT rights in isolation. That's not how the world works. You don't have religious rights in isolation," Urquhart said.
Still, he said "we don't need a lot of sideshows" to detract from the compromise bill on nondiscrimination and religious freedom.