A bill that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across Utah now awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.
The Senate bill cleared Utah’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives Wednesday by a vote of 65-10, marking the last legislative hurdle for the measure and a significant step for LGBT equality in a state dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Over 60% of Utahns identify as Mormon, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, as do more than 80% of state lawmakers. The church opposes marriage equality, and played a major role in helping to pass Proposition 8 – California’s former ban on same-sex nuptials.
But in a significant departure from its previous stance, the Mormon Church threw its support behind nondiscrimination protections for LGBT Utahns, so long as such safeguards did not infringe on the religious freedoms of individual families, churches, and other faith groups. Mormon officials, said Elder Dallin H. Oaks last month, “believe laws ought to be framed to achieve a balance.”
Though many view the religious freedom and LGBT equality movements as opposing forces – in that individuals, business, or in some cases, government officials could claim a religious freedom exemption in order to get around nondiscrimination or marriage equality laws – Utah’s Senate Bill 296 appears to have struck that “balance” the Mormon Church was seeking. Once enacted, the measure will make it illegal for employers and landlords to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, except in cases involving religious organizations and their affiliates.
“We are pleased that the Utah Legislature has passed Senate Bill 296,” Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Mormon Church, said in a statement. “It reflects the very best of collaboration and statesmanship from groups and individuals who may not always agree on all things, but who have passed landmark legislation that balances religious freedom and antidiscrimination. While other states may find a different solution, we hope this fair, balanced approach shows that fairness for all is possible.”
Though nearly 20 Utah cities and counties have passed similar equal rights ordinances, no nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people currently exist statewide. Equality Utah’s Executive Director Troy Williams hailed Wednesday’s passage of the measure as a “monumental day for Utah,” according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
“This vote proves that protections for gay and transgender people in housing and the workplace can gracefully coexist with the rights of people of faith,” Williams said. “One does not exist at the expense of the other.”
Gov. Herbert is scheduled to sign the bill at 6 p.m. Thursday. Utah will join 18 other states in banning discrimination based sexual orientation and gender identity.