Lawyers in Salt Lake City and across Utah are beginning to sense just how sticky the situation of equality and discrimination could become, with controversy bubbling up over another political issue involving discriminatory practices. Recently, Utah has gained national attention for its struggle in deciding whether same sex marriages will be legal in the state. On December 20th, Judge Robert Shelby struck down a constitutional ban on same sex marriage, saying that it was unconstitutional in providing equality for individuals under the law. Seventeen days later, the U.S. Supreme Court put the brakes on judge Shelby’s ruling and upheld the state’s appeal to the ruling. But that’s just the backstory. While lawyers in Salt Lake City are still scratching their heads about how to help their same-sex couple clients get hitched, establish kinship rights, or even file for divorce, a new bill is creeping in to share the spotlight shining on the marriage controversy.
A proposed nondiscrimination law drafted by Republican Senator Urquhart is awaiting debate on the floor after clearing the Senate committee last year. The bill prohibits discrimination within housing and employment practices based on gender identify and sexual orientation. And while most lawyers in Salt Lake City would agree that this issue is separate from the same-sex marriage debate (the bill certainly does not address same-sex marriage in Utah), the public in the state is just as divided on equality in employment and housing practices proposed by this bill. Urquhart, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that the past weeks’ debate about same sex marriage impacts this bill, changing the dynamic of the ways in which it is received and conceptualized, although he reiterates, “This isn’t about marriage, never was.”
It’s interesting to note that opponents of the bill point to nondiscrimination laws preceding gay marriage in the states where same-sex marriage is legal, and they may fear that steps to endure nondiscrimination could lead to the way marriage is legally viewed in Utah. Lawyers in Salt Lake City would be hard pressed to find any legitimate connection, however, and even while the bill itself does not apply to college dormitory housing practices, religious businesses, or religious organizations, many are worried that religious freedoms will be compromised. The president of United Families Utah frets that together, nondiscrimination laws and same-sex marriage would impact religious freedoms, and The Sutherland Institute, a conservative political think tank has paid for a series of TV ads aimed at corroding public opinion in the bill.
Utah currently has some nondiscrimination ordinances in 18 cities and counties. Lawyers in Salt Lake City note that the first ordinance was enacted in 2009 with the backing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the church has been silent on Urquhart’s bill this year, Utahns might be able to find some common ground in stopping unwarranted discriminatory practices toward individuals based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The nondiscrimination protection would include women, who have historically received lower wages for the same jobs as men, and single women have been denied housing opportunities more often than single men of their same situation.