Emotional hearing for compromise LGBT nondiscrimination, religious liberties bill

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In a sometimes emotional hearing, a Senate committee unanimously passed a compromise bill that attempts to balance gay rights and religious liberties.

But like it has been in years past, there is still division over the legislation.

Less than 24 hours after Senate Bill 296 was unveiled, it had a hearing before the Senate Business and Labor Committee. SB296's sponsors, Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, insisted the bill struck a balance between people's deeply held religious beliefs and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in housing and employment.

It was crafted in negotiations between lawmakers, gay rights advocates and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

READ MORE ABOUT WHAT THE BILL DOES HERE

The hearing included a detailed explanation of how SB296 works, at many times bringing the sponsors up to answer questions from the public. Many questions centered around bathrooms for transgender individuals (with one employer stating he would install a unisex restroom to be accommodating).

A private school asked if it would be exempted because of its ties to LDS teachings (it would likely, Urquhart said), and questions were asked if Catholic-based social service agencies would be exempted (they would). But others said it would assure larger corporations moving into Utah that their employees would be protected -- and valued.

"I'm asking you to represent people like me, who have fought for your rights," said Drew Reese, a veteran who said he was almost kicked out of housing near Utah Valley University because he is gay. "Please fight for mine."

Most of the public comment on the bill was against SB296.

Dave Mallinak, a pastor from Ogden, claimed the bill "puts a sanction on what God forbids." Gayle Ruzicka, the president of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she would like an amendment to provide greater protections for individuals with religious beliefs.

Jonas Rodriguez spoke against the bill, declaring to the committee it is "a falsified prescription of perversion."

"Do perverted people have rights?" Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, retorted.

"Yes," Rodriguez conceded, but continued to rail against the bill even after his time to speak had expired.

Rodriguez refused to stop speaking as Sen. Deidre Henderson, R-Spanish Fork, banged the gavel and demanded he yield to the next speaker.

"I will have order!" she said as a sergeant-at-arms rushed to escort Rodriguez from the microphone.

"You need to have facts!" Rodriguez shouted back.

There was some surprise support for the bill: Laura Bunker from United Families International said she supported SB296 because of its religious protections.

Support for SB296 also came from Eric Moutsos, a former Salt Lake City police officer who claimed he was disciplined after he requested to not be on a police motorcycle squad that was leading off last year's Utah Pride Parade. In an interview with FOX 13 on Thursday, Moutsos said Salt Lake City police put him on administrative leave.

"They said that I need to keep my personal beliefs at home and not bring that to work and that was grounds enough to put me on administrative leave," he said.

"There were things in the parade that I personally didn’t advocate and that’s why I asked for a switch because of my personal beliefs."

Moutsos said he was lending his support for SB296 because it would protect him as well as LGBT people.

"I think that this bill will protect everybody’s speech as long as it’s comfortable in a wanted conversation to where it’s not, ‘Hey don’t talk about that,'" he told FOX 13. "I think it’s going to do just that."

As the bill came up for a vote, many senators appeared to get emotional as they spoke about the impact of the compromise legislation.

"I believe this bill strikes a wonderful balance," Sen. Henderson said.

Sen. Weiler began to cry as he said SB296 could send a message to gay youth "who are struggling with whether they want to stay alive."

The bill now goes on to the full Senate for debate. It is expected to be considered Friday afternoon.