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Utah LGBT antidiscrimination law could chart new path for compromise (+video)

Backed by the Mormon church, Utah's Republican-led legislature voted overwhelmingly to provide explicit legal protections for all of its LGBT residents, while shielding religious institutions that oppose homosexuality from prosecution.

Utah, reddest of the red and one of the most religiously fervent states in the union, is poised on Thursday to become the 19th US state to provide explicit legal protections for all of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

With the full support of the Mormon church, the Utah state legislature, with massive super majorities of Republicans in both its Senate (24 to 5) and House (60 to 15), voted overwhelmingly to add both sexual orientation as well as gender identity to the state’s existing antidiscrimination laws in housing and employment. At the same time, the “Utah Compromise,” as it is called, also shields religious institutions that oppose homosexuality.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign the bill Thursday evening.

 The “monumental” law, hailed by many on both sides as a new path for compromise between religious conservatives and LGBT advocates across the country, would in some ways make the state’s protections more “progressive” than New York’s, New Hampshire’s, or Wisconsin’s. These states protect discrimination against lesbians and gays, but do not explicitly include transgender people, as Utah’s law, joining those of 18 mostly blue states, now will.

“The passage of [the bill] is historic—a Republican majority has voted to expand Utah’s existing non-discrimination protections to include the state’s LGBT community for the very first time,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, in a statement Thursday.

But the process could not have even begun, many say, without the support of the state’s influential Mormon leaders, who this year have begun a profound shift in their tone toward LGBT people, after being outspoken in their opposition to gay marriage for years.

Last fall, after federal court rulings made gay marriage legal in Utah, church leaders urged its members to be gracious and civil. Dallin Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the governing body of the church, said members should reject persecution “of any kind, including persecution based on race, ethnicity, religious belief or nonbelief, and differences in sexual orientation.”

Since then, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints had begun discussions with LGBT advocates, opening an unprecedented dialogue that led to this week’s expansion of legal protections. In January, Mormon leaders emphasized the need for new legislation to protect religious freedoms, which they believed were under assault, while announcing they would now support certain anti-discrimination legislation.

“Despite the challenges and difficulties, the complexity of negotiations, a spirit of respect and goodwill has allowed all involved to respect the differences of one another to bring about [this bill],” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson in a statement last week.

The church has not shifted its doctrines toward homosexuality, however, and still opposes same-sex marriage. Instead, it has in many ways emphasized the civic duties of Americans engaged in the democratic process.

“In a society which has starkly diverse views on what rights should be protected, the most sensible way to move forward is for all parties to recognize the legitimate concerns of others,” the church said in a statement supporting the bill. “After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah legislature has wisely struck that balance.... While none of the parties achieved all they wanted, we do at least now have an opportunity to lessen the divisiveness in our communities without compromising on key principles.”

The bill does not address whether businesses, such as bakers, florists, or wedding photographers, could refuse service to same-sex couples, which has become a thorny question in many states.

Gay-marriage advocates say they remained concerned about another bill passed by the Utah legislature this week that would allow individual state clerks and public officials to opt out of issuing marriage licenses if it violated their religious consciences.  

“Legislation like [this] simply isn’t necessary, and the spirit behind it is deeply disappointing,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement. “Individuals who apply for jobs that serve the public should be prepared to serve the whole public equally and without reservation.”

Since the Supreme Court could rule same-sex marriage a constitutional right later this year, a host of mostly conservative states have been considering similar religious conscience laws that would allow people in public roles to refuse to accommodate services that violate their religious beliefs.   

 But gay-rights advocates in Utah celebrated the emotional passage of the anti-discrimination bill, calling it a “monumental day for Utah.”

“This vote proves that protections for gay and transgender people in housing and the workplace can gracefully coexist with the rights of people of faith,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “One does not exist at the expense of the other.”

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