News (USA)

Lawmaker: Mormon church ‘snuffed out’ Utah hate crimes bill

Lawmaker: Mormon church ‘snuffed out’ Utah hate crimes bill
SALT LAKE CITY — A Mormon Utah senator working to pass a hate crimes bill protecting gay and transgender people criticized his church Thursday for thwarting the measure by urging legislators not to upset a balance between religious and LGBT rights.

Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “effectively snuffed out” discussion on his proposal with its statement.

Church spokesman Dale Jones said in the statement Wednesday that lawmakers struck a balance last year with an anti-discrimination law that protected religious rights and LGBT rights. Jones said that balance should be maintained despite efforts on both ends of the political spectrum to upset it.

Jones declined to elaborate. There was no reply to an email to the church on Thursday seeking a response to the statements by Urquhart and supporters, including a prosecutor and representatives of several other faiths, at a fiery news conference.

“This is Utah. We know what happens when the LDS Church makes a statement about legislation. It does alter the course of the bill. That is the political reality of Utah,” said Troy Williams, the executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Utah.

Most Utah legislators are members of the faith, as are about 60 percent of state residents. The church’s political sway was evident last year when the anti-discrimination law that gay rights activists had been working to pass for years passed with broad support once the faith endorsed it.

Williams, whose group has been one of the main advocates for the hate crimes law, said he did not know Thursday if the church’s statement had changed minds on the proposal.

The faith’s opposition to a medical marijuana bill this year has been considered a death blow to the effort by supporters. Utah’s Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, acknowledged the church’s position would make that measure much more difficult to pass.

Urquhart said Thursday that his proposal would protect religious groups, including members of the LDS Church, because Utah’s current hate crimes law is too weak to be enforced.

“Under current Utah law, there’s no legal distinction between painting a smiley face on a synagogue or painting a swastika on a synagogue. They’re both treated like mere graffiti,” Urquhart said.

“I apologize to the Jewish community and to the state of Utah that legal protections will not be provided against such threats because of a press release by my church,” he added.

Urquhart quickly left the news conference before taking questions from reporters and disappeared into back rooms of the Capitol.

His proposal was approved last week by a Senate committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate that is not expected to happen at least until next week.

Urquhart’s supporters said they’ll still push forward with the legislation but acknowledged it may not happen this year.

Utah is one of 15 states with hate crime laws that lack protections for sexual orientation and identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The current law does not spell out any protected groups but instead speaks generally about crimes that cause a person to fear they cannot freely exercise their constitutional rights.

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