Utah lawmakers introduced a landmark bill Wednesday that bars discrimination against gay and transgender individuals while protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
The measure has a rare stamp of approval from the Mormon church and stands a high chance of passing in Utah, where the church is based and many state lawmakers and the Republican governor are members of the faith.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints joined LGBT-rights activists, bipartisan lawmakers and Utah's Republican lieutenant governor in unveiling the bill at a news conference Wednesday.
"This is a historic day," Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams said. "People from diverse backgrounds have come together to craft what no one thought was possible."
State Sen. Stuart Adams, a Republican who led negotiations on the proposal, said at the news conference that they've found a way to respect the rights of some while not infringing on the rights of others.
"If Utah can do this, my opinion, it can be done anywhere else in the nation," Adams said.
The proposal, which will face its first legislative hurdle at a Thursday hearing, prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation when it comes to housing or employment. Religious groups and organizations would be exempt from the requirement, as would Boy Scouts of America, which has a ban on gay adult Scout leaders and has close ties to the LDS Church.
The church said Wednesday it is fully behind the legislation, which follows the principles set out in the faith's recent nationwide call for laws that balance both religious rights and LGBT protections.
"In this approach, we acknowledged that neither side or no party may get all they want," D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said. "It is better if both sides get most of what is desired than to have a winner-take-all where one side loses."
While there may be critics of the proposal, Christofferson said it contains strong religious protections and a fair approach to housing and employment.
LGBT activists have spent years pushing for a statewide non-discrimination law in Utah, but their efforts were fast-tracked this year after the Mormon church issued its call for this type of legislation.
Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was raised Mormon and is openly gay, said local Catholic and Episcopal church officials were also consulted about the proposal but they have not officially endorsed it.
Sen. Steve Urquhart, a St. George Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said the Boy Scouts were not involved in negotiations on the Utah proposal and did not request the exemption. He said the organization was included because of a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the organization's constitutional right to exclude gay members.
The Boy Scouts now allow openly gay youth.
Boy Scouts of America national spokesman Deron Smith said the organization didn't have any comment on the legislation. Utah Boy Scouts leaders deferred comment to the national organization.
Scouts for Equality, an organization critical of the Scouts' ban on gay leaders, criticized the exemption.
"The fundamental principle of non-discrimination means that there aren't special exemptions," Scouts for Equality executive director Zach Wahls said in a statement. "Non-discrimination means 'non-discrimination,' not 'non-discrimination except for the Boy Scouts.' "
The compromise also attracted criticism from some conservatives.
"It's heavy on protection for special classes of people that I don't believe should be a special class, but it's very light on religious protections," said Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative family-values group Utah Eagle Forum.
Ruzicka said the proposal needed more protections for religious individuals to act in accordance with their beliefs.
Beyond banning discrimination based on identity and sexual orientation, the proposal stipulates that employers can adopt "reasonable dress and grooming standards" and "reasonable rules and polices" for sex-specific restrooms and other facilities, as long as those standards also include accommodations for gender identity.
It protects the right of an individual employee to express their religious or moral beliefs in "a reasonable, non-disruptive or non-harassing way," as long as it doesn't interfere with the company's business.
It also prohibits employers from firing, demoting or refusing to hire a person for expressing religious or political beliefs about marriage or sexuality unless those beliefs conflict with the company's business interest.
The Mormon campaign pushing for these types of laws is the latest example of a shift in tone by the LDS Church. While it has moved away from harsh rhetoric and is preaching compassion and acceptance, the church insists it is making no changes in doctrine and still believes that sex is against the law of God unless it's within a marriage between a man and a woman.
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