A Mormon church-backed anti-discrimination law that protects gay and transgender people and religious rights took effect Tuesday amid skepticism from some LGBT residents over whether it lives up to its promises.
Gay rights groups pushed for an anti-discrimination law for years and finally succeeded during the 2015 legislative session with a deal that won the crucial backing of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The law makes it illegal to base employment and housing decisions on sexual orientation or gender identity. It was hailed as landmark legislation.
LGBT residents say the law is a positive step, but they worry it still allows discrimination because religious organizations and their affiliates – such as schools and hospitals – are exempt.
One example they cite is Brigham Young University, which is owned by the Mormon church and can still evict people from student housing for being gay. That exemption also applies to the 1,400 landlords who contract with the private Provo school to provide off-campus housing.
"It felt just like scraps, that we were so desperate for any kind of legal protection that we'll just take anything," said Seth Anderson, 33, who lives with his husband in Salt Lake City.
Utah's law is different from religious-objections bills passed by legislatures in Indiana, Arkansas, and Arizona in the past year because it's limited to decisions about housing and employment. The other laws deal with the rights of businesses to refuse to provide services such as flowers or wedding cakes to same-sex couples.
James Ord, a gay Mormon church member, noted that not only does Utah's law leave LGBT Brigham Young students unprotected, it also threatens nearby Utah Valley University students, who might try to rent from the same landlords.
"The loopholes in the law are so wide that you can drive a Mack Truck through them," the 38-year-old Salt Lake City lawyer said.
Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, which negotiated with church leaders and lawmakers over the measure, disagreed and said the law provides tangible protections to the state's 55,000 LGBT adults.
Its religious exemptions are on par with existing exemptions in federal law, Williams said.
In endorsing the measure, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said it follows the principles set out in the faith's call for laws that balance religious rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The faith's leaders have softened their tone in recent years regarding same-sex attraction. While moving away from harsh rhetoric and preaching compassion and acceptance, the church insists it is not changing doctrine and still believes sex is against God's law unless it is within a marriage between a man and a woman.
Utah's voter-approved ban on gay marriage was overturned in 2013. The US Supreme Court declined to hear the case last year, effectively legalizing gay marriage in Utah.
Mr. Williams noted LGBT people weren't at the table in Indiana and Arkansas, and they haven't been in the past in Utah. But this year they were, along with attorneys from national groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's really easy to take a posture of ideological purity, but the more difficult thing is to sit down with people who have opposing views and to work together to craft legislation," Williams said.
LGBT critics of the anti-discrimination law said that cooperation is tenuous, and point to comments made by members of the faith's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles just weeks after the law was signed.
Speaking at the church's semiannual conference in April, L. Tom Perry urged Mormons to let their values and their voice "be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established."
Williams, who disagreed with the comments, said his group found common ground with the faith only on housing and employment. "It tells me we have more work to do to reach out and to break down the stereotype," he said.
The ideological divide continued Tuesday, as an international conservative group that opposes homosexuality held a news conference in Salt Lake City to promote its first worldwide conference in the US later this year. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families' four-day gathering is set for October in Utah.
At a dueling Salt Lake City news conference, local LGBT advocacy group Restore our Humanity said the gathering will infuse discrimination and bigotry into the community.