By Bailey Williams
WASHINGTON—A new Utah anti-discrimination law that has the blessing of the Mormon church may be a step toward expanding both religious freedom and gay rights, experts said on Monday.
The Utah law spells out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender protections that would prohibit employers and property owners from using gender or sexual orientation to discriminate against employees and tenants. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill last week.
This was the most-significant aspect of the legislation, said Clifford Rosky, “Equality Utah” chair and a law professor at the University of Utah.
Most Americans do not realize that federally, gender and sexual orientation protections are typically left out of the conversation, Rosky said at Brookings Institution panel discussion.
But beyond LGBT protection, Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow said the law could spark increased LGBT conversation on religious freedoms. Warbelow said the campaign aims to ensure everyone has equal access to the same protections.
Utah’s “compromise” as it has been called, also contained religious protections including allowing religious groups to conduct marriages based on their religious beliefs.
The Utah law provides exemptions for churches and their affiliates, such as religious schools, associations and societies and the Boy Scouts of America.
Former Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the law is a “great victory for the protection of (religious) conscience.”
Expanding LGBT and religious protections went beyond policy, the panelists said.
In Utah, the religious and LGBT communities are intertwined, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said.
There has previously been tension between the groups that is, in part, being healed through the conversation that is now taking place in Utah, McAdams said.
Although Utah’s law is “solid,” it is not a model for the rest of the United States, Warbelow said. The bill provides needed protections for the current LGBT community in Utah, which has a different religious outlook than other states, she said.
Others panelists disagreed.
“We do see this Utah legislation as the potential for a template especially considering federally the fact that we have a Republican-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House,” said Gregory Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, the advocacy group for conservative gay Americans.
James Humphreys, president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Utah, echoed Angelo in a statement commending the state’s law.
“I do believe that, again, Utah is leading the way for other conservative states to demonstrate how we can enshrine, in law, our society’s basic belief in fairness and equality for all without the need to limit other rights,” Humphreys said. “The balance struck on this legislation between religious freedom and the other rights we all share should be seen an opportunity for all states to follow.”