SALT LAKE CITY — LGBT advocates in Utah are more optimistic than ever they can pass a statewide anti-discrimination law this year now that the Mormon church has made a national appeal for such measures.
But nobody is saying exactly how they’ll craft legislation to include expanded protections for religious liberties that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants included.
Hashing out those important details – in a way that both sides can agree on – still looms as a major hurdle before the measure becomes law.
Utah legislators on Wednesday said they’ve just started meeting on the issue and it will be at least a week before a bill or several bills carrying a compromise may surface.
Lawmakers on both sides say they’re optimistic they’ll strike a deal, but they also acknowledge it’s a delicate balance that they may not reach this year.
Democratic Sen. Jim Dabakis of Salt Lake City said he met with Republican leaders for an hour on Tuesday to discuss the issue.
“We may come out with a bill that is really going to get through this time,” Dabakis said early Wednesday morning during a weekly meeting with his supporters. “We may not get there, but this time, it is really serious and we may be able to pull that bill all the way through.”
Dabakis, who is openly gay, said if it doesn’t work out this year, they’ll come back in 2016 and try again.
Republican lawmakers maintain that legislation protecting gay rights must also protect religious liberties, a balance that church leaders spoke of two weeks ago.
The church’s announcement made huge waves in Utah, where the governor and most lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Advocates for LGBT protections have hoped the announcement would propel a stalled anti-discrimination measure at the statehouse.
“Last year, people just wanted the issue to go away. I think this year, people are more interested in finding a solution,” said St. George Republican Sen. Steve Urquhart, who has sponsored the anti-discrimination bill for three years in a row.
Urquhart’s bill would add sexual identity and gender orientation to an existing law dealing with employment and housing discrimination.
It already includes exceptions for religious groups, and it’s what unclear further exemptions would need to be added to gain broad support or an official endorsement from the church.
Urquhart said Wednesday that “anything you can imagine has been put on the table,” but he hopes a bill may be ready for a committee hearing next week.
“If that doesn’t happen, I’d start to get nervous on timing,” he said.
Lawmakers are set to adjourn at midnight on March 12.
“These are really critical issues right now that we have to sort of very carefully navigate because the stakes are really high,” Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, said Wednesday morning.
Williams said because the church didn’t clearly define what religious protections it sought, that line has been vague for legislators.
If there’s a desire “for an individual to use their deeply held religious beliefs to discriminate against whoever they want to, we could never stand for that,” he said. “That would begin to unravel decades of civil rights achievements in this nation. It would begin to unravel protections for religious people themselves.”
Article continues belowIn the House, where two religious protection bills have already surfaced, Republicans are planning to discuss the issue in two weeks, Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan said Wednesday afternoon.
Dunnigan, a Taylorsville Republican, said beyond he thinks the House will come up its own a comprehensive bill addressing both religious and LGBT protections.
In the Senate, Layton Republican Sen. Stuart Adams, said Wednesday that he’s been planning a religious liberties bill and may combine it with Urquhart’s effort.
“It is a difficult issue – I’ll guarantee you that, but it’s something that we’re all hopeful we can try to work out,” Adams said.
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