SALT LAKE CITY — More than 20 years ago, Troy Williams was a young Mormon missionary who didn’t know how he would reconcile his sexual orientation with his faith when he came home to live in conservative Utah.
“I was just scared. As a gay Utahn, I couldn’t imagine for myself a positive future,” said Williams, now 45 and an outspoken advocate for gay rights.
House committee advances alternate bill that excludes phrases ‘sexual orientation,’ ‘gender identity’
Hours after Utah senators unveiled comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that earned the approval of the Mormon Church and LGBT rights advocates, lawmakers in the House decided to move forward with an alternative proposal.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 6-5 on Wednesday to continue consideration of an anti-discrimination proposal introduced by Draper Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen. Christensen chairs the committee and cast the tie-breaking vote that kept his bill on the table.
Christensen said Wednesday that his bill addresses similar issues to the Senate legislation and called the sponsors of that measure “like-minded.”
But the language in his bill allows more latitude to actions by religious individuals, which proved to be a sticking point in the Wednesday evening hearing.
Several Republicans joined Salt Lake City Democrat Rep. Brian King in voting against Christensen’s proposal. They took issue with language they said would allow discriminatory acts in the name of religion, and said they’d prefer to see lawmakers focus on the Senate proposal.
Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative family-values group Utah Eagle Forum, told lawmakers that she supported Christensen’s bill because of its strong protection for the religious liberty of individuals, which she said is missing from the Senate version.
It does not include the phrases “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” as the Senate proposal does. Instead, it uses the term “sex-related interests,” which Christensen said was designed to cover as many circumstances as possible.
As a young man, Williams said he never would have envisioned a scene like the one that unfolded at Utah’s state Capitol on Wednesday, where state lawmakers, Mormon church leaders and LGBT advocates joined together to back a landmark proposal that bars discrimination against gay and transgender individuals while protecting the rights of religious groups and individuals.
“This is a historic day,” said Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah. “People from diverse backgrounds have come together to craft what no one thought was possible.”
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. The bill gets its first hearing Thursday morning.
State Sen. Stuart Adams, a Republican who led negotiations on the proposal, said at the news conference Wednesday 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 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.”