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Utah LGBT non‑discrimination bill exempts Boy Scouts, religious groups

Utah LGBT non‑discrimination bill exempts Boy Scouts, religious groups
Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.
Utah state capitol in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers introduced a landmark anti-discrimination bill Wednesday that protects LGBT individuals while also carving out protections for the Boy Scouts of America and religious groups.

The proposal unveiled in the heavily Mormon state on Wednesday 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 Mormon church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based in Utah, is the Boy Scouts’ largest sponsor. The church said 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.

“After a considerable amount of hard work, we believe that the Utah legislature has wisely struck that balance,” the church said in a statement. “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.

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.

At a news conference where Utah senators and LGBT-rights activists joined high-ranking leaders of the Mormon church, officials touted the measure as a model for the rest of the country and history-making for Utah.

“This will provide hope for thousands of LGBT youth living in Utah,” said Equality Utah executive director Troy Williams, who was raised Mormon.

Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was raised Mormon and is openly gay, said in a statement: “This is a momentous moment in Utah’s cultural history. It is not a win for one side or the other, it is a win for all Utahns.”

It wasn’t immediately clear Wednesday morning why lawmakers chose to include the Boy Scouts in their proposal, which has been negotiated behind closed doors for weeks.

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.

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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.

The bill states that its provisions may not be interpreted to “infringe on freedom of expressive association or the free exercise of religion.” 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 their religious or political beliefs about marriage or sexuality unless those beliefs conflict with the company’s business interest.

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Utah senators, LGBT-rights activists and representatives of the Mormon church are scheduled to discuss the bill at a noon news conference at the state Capitol.

The Mormon campaign pushing for these types of laws is the latest example of a shift in tone on gay rights by the LDS Church, which counts 15 million members worldwide. They have moved away from harsh rhetoric and are preaching compassion and acceptance of gays and lesbians now that gay marriage is legal in Washington D.C. and 36 states including Utah.

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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