Equality Utah is hoping that the second time will be the charm for a bill aimed at extending nondiscrimination protections in housing and the workplace to gay and transgender Utahns.
The local gay rights group drafted the bill during last year’s legislative session, where it was sponsored by Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City. Then numbered HB 89 and titled Antidiscrimination Act Amendments, the bill — which focused only on workplace protections — was tabled early in the session by the House Business and Labor Standing Committee. A bicameral committee heard testimony on the bill over the summer as well, but did not come to any definite conclusions about its future at that time.
As in its past incarnation, the 2009 version of the antidiscrimination bill seeks to make it illegal for Utah employers to refuse to hire, promote, demote or fire an employee based on his or her real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. It would further forbid employers from discriminating against gay or transgender employees in wages and conditions of employment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
This time around, however, Johnson has also added language to the bill that, in her words, “stipulates that you can’t discriminate in any [housing] application prospect, if you suspect or confirm that someone is LGBT.” This, she said, includes such things as advertising that gay people aren’t welcome to rent a property.
“We already have certain language in the code that stipulates discrimination in housing practice and defines it. This is just going to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of reasons one cannot discriminate,” she said.
Utah law currently prohibits discrimination in housing based on a buyer or tenant’s religion, race, color, sex, source of income, family status, national origin or disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the workplace, Utah law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, age (if the individual is over 40 years old), childbirth or pregnancy status, religion, national origin and disability as defined by the ADA.
Johnson said she got the idea to append housing onto her bill late last year, after the debate over Proposition 8, the measure re-banning gay marriage in California, threw the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the national spotlight for its outspoken support of the measure. To counter claims from Proposition 8 opponents that the church was an anti-gay institution, church leaders stated that they did not oppose “rights for same-sex couples regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights.” This statement lead local gay-rights group Equality Utah to propose its Common Ground Initiative, a set of five bills seeking to secure these protections for gay and transgender Utahns. Johnson’s bill is part of this initiative.
Johnson said she is hopeful that her bill will be one of the first up for debate, particularly as legislators have been studying the bill closely during the interim.
“Though there’s still a lot of ground to b gained as far as educating members [of the legislature] and having them comfortable with the topic, I was pleased with the general open-mindedness exhibited by the [House Business and Labor] committee,” she said.
“Honestly I don’t think they know what to do with it,” she continued. “I think no one’s in favor of discrimination, but there’s so much they don’t understand about sexual orientation. Some of them were surprised to find out they had a sexual orientation, even if they were heterosexual. [We’re trying] to make this [issue] human and make them understand that even based on data given to us by the Utah Labor Commission, we know that discrimination is taking place on the grounds of sexual orientation in this state.”
Above all, Johnson said she thinks her bill could do a lot in getting legislators to admit that gay and transgender people do exist, and thus need legal protections.
“So far in our code we’re not identifying members of the community who we know live in our midst, but there’s this illusion if we exempt them from being listed in our statues somehow they don’t exist,” she said. “I think this bill could catapult this conversation to where our laws actually acknowledge that LGBT people live in Utah and are a valuable part of our community.”
Johnson added that she is thankful to gay and transgender people who have come forward to testify so far, and hopes that they will do so again this session.