Non-discrimination bill clears committee

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A bill that would prohibit discrimination against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity in housing and employment passed a senate committee by a narrow vote on Thursday.

It is the first time in the six years the non-discrimination bill has been pushed through the Utah State Legislature that it has cleared such a hurdle. SB 262, sponsored by Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, passed by a 4-3 margin.

"This is a historic day!" Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay lawmaker in the Utah State Legislature, said after the hearing. "This has never happened before. To have non-discrimination for LGBT people out of a committee."

After the bill passed, people in the audience -- mostly supporters of SB 262 -- applauded. Outside the chambers, they hugged and wiped away tears of joy. The narrow passage of the bill came after an hour-and-a-half of emotional testimony.

"For many years, when I would get up for work, unlike you, I would have an added stress," said Kimberly Leary, who testified in support of SB 262. "The stress of being different and the worry of knowing no matter how well I performed my job, I could be fired."

"SB 262 is a solution looking for a problem," said Paul Mero of the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank, who testified in opposition to the bill.

Others testified that passage of the non-discrimination bill would be opening a door to same-sex marriage.

Doree Burt, of the group "Mormons Building Bridges," urged support for the bill's passage, crying as she testified.

"Our religion teaches us the Golden Rule," she said.

SB 262 is modeled after non-discrimination ordinances that have passed in 16 cities across the state. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has remained silent on Urquhart's bill, but has supported the municipal ordinances. Small businesses, religions (and their companies) and landlords with less than four units would be exempted.

But some lawmakers were not in support, because they view homosexuality as immoral.

"If I believe, which I do, that homosexual activity is immoral -- is that a discriminatory belief?" Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, asked Urquhart.

"Let me just say that is a belief that this statute would not affect in any way, shape or form," Urquhart told him. "You can think whatever you want. There are just certain actions you cannot take."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-West Jordan, wanted to see evidence of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people being discriminated against in employment or housing.

"Is there actual evidence that we're seeing from our community? Where people are actually being kicked out of jobs, losing housing?" he asked.

"Forty three percent of gay Utahns, 67 percent of transgender Utahns report they have experienced discrimination in employment," Urquhart replied.

Urquhart, who is the first Republican to sponsor SB 262, said he has received a lot of attention since he unveiled the bill.

"A lot of love and some pretty intense hatred," he said. "But that really makes me think. I've experienced it for about a week because of this issue. We have a lot of people who are experiencing it for a lifetime."

SB 262 will go to the full Senate for debate, but Urquhart told FOX 13 he did not believe it would make it to the House.

"I'm not confident this will make it past the senate floor," Urquhart said. "But I'm sure going to work hard to get that result (passage)."

The gay rights group Equality Utah said it would be urging members of the LGBT community to push for its passage. On the other side, the Utah Eagle Forum said it would push the Senate to vote it down.

"It has to become law for you to win," said Gayle Ruzicka. "This one's not going to become law."