Utah Passed LGBT Rights Bill, But There's More To The Story

03/12/2015 05:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

It was undoubtedly a victory for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Utah. After long negotiation, the state legislature on Wednesday passed a law that bars discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The “Utah compromise” among state lawmakers, LGBT groups and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been in the works for seven years, The New York Times reported.

The final vote count wasn't even close in the Republican-controlled legislature. On Wednesday, the Utah House of Representatives voted 65-10 in favor of S.B. 296, which had passed the state Senate 23-5 last week.

State Rep. Brad Dee (R) presented the bill in the House, along with co-sponsors Sen. Steve Urquhart (R) and Utah Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams (R). “There was a lot of people and a lot of faith that went into this particular bill,” Dee said as he wept, according to the local Fox affiliate.

“We are all people and I believe we all deserve protection equally," he added.

But S.B. 296 doesn't actually cover all situations. A key provision exempts religious institutions, organizations, associations and their affiliates, as well as the Boy Scouts of America, from being defined as employers for these purposes.

The legislation also allows for the expression of religious beliefs and commitments within the workplace as long as those comments are “reasonable, non-disruptive and non-harassing.” And it does not address whether denying services, such as the baking of wedding cakes, based on religious beliefs will be considered discriminatory.

S.B. 296 received the blessing of the LDS church in a statement last week:

The principle that we have urged legislators to address is that of fairness for everyone. 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. After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah legislature has wisely struck that balance. LGBT people cannot be fired or denied housing just for being gay. At the same time, religious conscience and the right to protect deeply held religious beliefs is protected by robust legislation. 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 church's endorsement of the bill sped up its passage through the legislature, The Washington Post reported. About 60 percent of Utah residents identify as Mormons, according to a Gallup poll last year.

It still didn't please everybody. State Rep. Jeremy Peterson (R) wondered if the addition of pro-LGBT language in the Utah Fair Housing Act was really necessary, according to Fox 13. Peterson said that as a landlord and a member of the LDS church, he had rented to gay people and never heard any criticism for his actions.

Reasserting the value it places on the free exercise of religious belief, the Utah House chose Wednesday night to advance another bill that the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah warns could limit the good done by S.B. 296. H.B. 322 includes a section titled the Religious Liberty Act, which would protect the right of all people “to be free from government acts that deny or exclude the rightful and lawful expression and exercise of religious liberty in private or public life."

The latter bill notes that "religious liberty and rights of conscience" are not a legal pass to discriminate in ways that violate other laws, such as those changed by S.B. 296.

In other mixed messages, a Utah Senate committee recently approved a bill that would allow state government officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples -- as long as they gave up their authority to marry straight couples, too.

S.B. 296 will be signed into law on Thursday by Gov. Gary Herbert (R) in a special ceremony.

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