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Utah bill would OK discrimination on religious grounds

Religious freedom supporters hold a rally on June 30, 2014 in Chicago, Ill. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Religious freedom supporters hold a rally on June 30, 2014 in Chicago, Ill.

A bill proposed in the Utah House could place freedom of religion above other constitutionally protected rights — for the first time ever — and recognize religion as a defense against allegations of discrimination.

Republican Rep. LaVar Christensen's measure would allow people of faith to sue others for imposing on their beliefs, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. One of the highlighted provisions is requiring "government and private individuals that impose a law or action that substantially burdens another's religious liberty to balance certain requirements in order to lawfully enforce or recognize the law or action."

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Many of Christensen's colleagues aren't in favor of his bill. While other proposals have sought to limit government actions, his measure is different because it restricts actions by individuals and private entities that might influence another person's religious beliefs.

Christensen did not immediately respond to msnbc's request for comment. But the Tribune obtained a memo written by legislative drafting attorney Eric Weeks. He said: “The proposed act may be subject to challenge in court because it expands religious protections to an extent not currently recognized by the courts. Consequently, it is impossible to effectively evaluate its constitutionality or its practical effect on the balance between civil rights and the free exercise of religion.''

Last month, top leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints publicly declared they supported both the passage of statewide discrimination protections for gay and lesbian Utahns, and the religious freedom of those who oppose gay rights.

Faith leaders gathered earlier this week to speak out against Christensen's statewide proposal, which they said would discriminate against gay and lesbian people. They asked the Utah Legislature to support a different bill, proposed by Republican state Sen. Steve Urquhart, that offers protections for LGBT people from discrimination, according to local media.

Christensen is the main sponsor of the new bill. In 2004, he was the sponsor of his conservative state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which the federal courts struck down.