<strong>SALT LAKE CITY (AP)</strong> – A Utah Senate committee has advanced legislation proposing a statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual identity or orientation.
This is the fifth consecutive year the legislation has been introduced but the first time it’s ever successfully been approved by a committee.
After an hour and half hearing where lawmakers heard testimony that was at times emotional, a Senate committee voted 4-3 to approve the bill Thursday afternoon.
“This is a historic day. This has never happened before,” said Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, a co-sponsor of the legislation who in 2011 became the first openly gay person to lead a state party in Utah.
In 2009, Salt Lake City became the first municipality to pass an ordinance making it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender, and 15 other Utah cities and counties have followed suit. But for the past five years, statewide efforts, generally led by Democrats, have failed in the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.
This year’s bill comes from a Republican, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, of St. George, who also called it “a historic day.”
“I think that we have something to be proud of,” Urquhart said after the vote. “I’ve been up here 13 years, and I’m as proud of this legislation as any I’ve ever worked on. I’m late getting to this position, but I’m very glad I’m here.”
The legislation would not apply to religious organizations, which are already exempt from the statewide law banning discrimination based on religion, national origin, sex or race.
The bill also extends that exemption to any organization advocating a viewpoint that would be affected by employing someone falling into a protected category.
At least 16 states and Washington, D.C., prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Five other states have laws limited just to sexual orientation, according to Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
Urquhart said he’s supported the idea for several years but wasn’t sure if it would play well in his conservative district in southern Utah. Since announcing the legislation, Urquhart said he’s received both opposition and support.
Urquhart also said he’s received support from fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but he has not specifically spoken with church leaders to see if they support the legislation.
In 2009, a senior LDS spokesman made a rare public appearance before Salt Lake City lawmakers to support regulations protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment.
Church spokesman Michael Purdy said Thursday that church leaders have not taken a position on the bill.
“The Church is on the record supporting non-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian citizens related to housing and employment,” Purdy said in a statement issued by the church. “We also believe that any legislation should protect these rights while also preserving the rights of religious conscience _ to act in accordance with deeply held religious beliefs _ for individuals and organizations. “
During the hearing Thursday, Urquhart told lawmakers that the legislation lets people believe what they want, but when it comes to employment and housing, there are certain things people cannot do.
“Those prohibitions already apply to a lot of characteristics,” he said, referring to the state’s law about discrimination based on gender, race and other characteristic. “People are free to think about those characteristics whatever they want.”
The bill is about actions, not about thoughts, Urquhart said.
“We should all have an opportunity to earn a living and keep a roof over our heads,” he said.
Critics of the legislation say that protecting people because of their sexual orientation violates the freedom of religious people who don’t support the lifestyle.
“It takes one group of people and gives them special rights and privileges at the expense of others,” said Al Jackson, CEO of Thomas Jefferson Center of Constitutional Restoration.
His comments were echoed by Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute.
“This isn’t a gay rights bill. It’s a special rights bill,” he said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert said that while he is opposed to any discrimination based on sexual orientation, he isn’t sure he’d support a statewide law and feels the issue should be left to local communities.
The anti-discrimination proposal now moves to the Senate for consideration.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative family-values group Utah Eagle Forum, said proponents of the measure are free to call Thursday’s vote a celebration, but she said she doesn’t think it’s going to win approval from the Senate.
“It has to become law for you to win, and this one’s not going to become law,” she said.
Urquhart said he’s not deterred, and if it fails, he’ll try again next year.
“I’m going to keep bringing this back until we pass it,” he said.