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Utah lawmakers approve bill allowing clerks to opt-out of marrying gay couples

Utah lawmakers approve bill allowing clerks to opt-out of marrying gay couples
Update: The Senate gave its final approval to the bill on Thursday in a 25-3 vote. The bill now heads to Republican Gov. Gary Herbert for approval. It is unclear whether he will sign it.

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah state House approved a bill Wednesday night that allows county clerks to refuse to marry same-sex couples for religious reasons.

Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.
Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.

But the bill requires a county clerk’s office to designate someone who will marry gay couples if the clerk opts out. The House voted 66-9 Wednesday night to approve the proposal.

The House Judiciary Committee approved the measure just hours earlier, calling it a good balance between protecting religious rights while still accommodating gay couples who wish to marry.

Same-sex marriage was effectively legalized in Utah last year after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to the state’s gay marriage ban.

Republican Sen. Stuart Adams, of Layton, sponsors the bill and said it guarantees same-sex couples will be able to find someone to marry them in each county.

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LGBT advocates initially opposed Adams’ bill when it included broader religious protections.

Equality Utah’s executive director, Troy Williams, said Wednesday that his organization is now neutral on the bill after Adams addressed their concerns.

“On principle, we don’t love the idea that clerks can opt out,” Williams told lawmakers, but he added that he likes that the bill guarantees same-sex couples will be able to marry throughout the state.

The bill also states that religious institutions have First Amendment protection from performing marriages that are against their faith or from providing services for same-sex marriages.

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Salt Lake City Democratic Rep. Brian King voted for the bill but said he struggled with allowing a government official to opt out of duties to the public.

“Individuals who don’t want to serve the public because they have individual religious objections shouldn’t be doing that,” King said. “They shouldn’t voluntarily accept that position if they’re not comfortable doing that.”

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the bill is a “balanced and fair approach to marriage and religious freedom protections.”

The church’s endorsement comes as high-ranking members of the faith also publicly supported an LGBT anti-discrimination bill that was introduced last week.

With its broad support from religious groups and LGBT advocates, that measure has been fast-tracked through the conservative Utah Legislature. The House voted Wednesday night to send that bill to the governor’s desk.

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That bill protects gay and transgender individuals from discrimination in housing and employment, but it exempts religious groups. It also protects the right of religious individuals to express their beliefs, at work or at home, as long as they’re not harassing anyone or interfering with their employer’s business.

Gay and transgender advocates have tried for about seven years to pass a statewide anti-discrimination bill in conservative Utah.

With the church’s backing, they believe they may have finally succeeded this year.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican and member of the church, will sign non-discrimination the bill at 6 p.m. on Thursday, according to his spokesman Marty Carpenter. It remains unclear whether he’d support the marriage bill.

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